At Chester Zoo we pride ourselves in the work we’re doing to increase accessibility at the zoo and support those with disabilities.  Niomi is one of our Visitor Engagement Volunteers and she has autism.  Here she tells us about her volunteer journey…

“Helping others – whether it is people or animals – has always been a great passion of mine.  I have had experience of volunteering before in various placements with veterinary surgeries, animal rescues, and dog training schools whilst studying toward an Animal Sciences degree.  Though I now work in an office, Chester Zoo has given me the opportunity in my spare time, to get outside and share my knowledge and passion for conservation and endangered species by educating visitors.

“When my mum spotted on Facebook that Chester Zoo was taking on volunteers – I jumped at the opportunity to get my foot in the door with the best zoo in the UK! I guessed from my research that lots of people were probably going to apply so, I put everything into my application.  This is when my nervousness started right up until I got an email saying ‘congratulations’ – I’d been successful!  It was such a surprise and I was particularly happy because it was a few days before my birthday. Best. Gift. Ever.

“Before I knew it, day one of training had arrived.  I was so excited to see everyone around me as equally as enthralled in each session as I was; straight from the get go I felt as though I was a part of the Chester Zoo family.  Each session was jam-packed and each hour was so engaging!  There was so much to learn and we were all eager to soak up as much information as we could.  Graduation was spent with cake, pointy party hats and music!  I felt so accomplished when walking up to the front of the classroom to receive my new uniform followed by applause from my fellow volunteer colleagues – I couldn’t wait to get started!

“A week after graduation and it was my first shift!  I was worried that I had forgotten everything although I remember being told ‘you’re not expected to know it all’ – it’s a mantra I live by when I come in for my shift every week!  Each experience is unique and you’re always going to witness new things; always going to be asked new questions and every once in a while you’re going to get lost in the zoo – it’s just so big!  So as a new volunteer, I had a buddy to help me find out how to get to where I needed to be, help me to approach visitors and also be an extra pair of eyes to help me spot the animals!  We were headed to the Realm of the Red Ape for my first hour – home of Chester Zoo’s Bornean orangutans.  My buddy and I got to our station before the visitors so we had a quiet moment to ourselves and also a clear view of one of the babies learning how to climb – so cute!  It was winter season and quiet which I was thankful for on my first day to get to grips with everything.  My shift was quite easy I’d had time to find my feet, explore the location and also ask lots of questions!

Volunteering with Chester Zoo is the best journey I ever started and hope to do so for as long as I can.  I know from previous experiences the positive impacts volunteering can have on your health, well-being and mindfulness.  It has certainly helped me overcome some of my own difficulties.  As someone who has autism, talking to people is one of my struggles – just the other week I suddenly realised how comfortable I was talking to a big group of visitors about the Indonesian songbird crisis.

“I love volunteering with Chester Zoo!  I love handing out explorer guides to kids on Coral Sands – seeing the excitement on their little faces as they begin their expedition.  I love the recognition I see from visitors as I wear my uniform and badge with pride.  I love it when visitors say ‘thank you’ when I help them.  I love each baby that’s born (especially Maddidi the Andean bear – she and I share the same birthday!) and I just love being a part of this big family.  I wanted to volunteer for Chester Zoo not just to improve my skills and make friends I wanted to be a part of something big; be a part of the founder’s philosophy of ‘always building’ and delivering the mission of ‘preventing extinction’. If ever you want to volunteer, especially for Chester Zoo, I would highly recommend it!