I can’t tell you how proud I am of both the OPG Project Leaders and the Oceans Ambassadors this week, or how creative and inspiring they all are. Having formally started their awards about three or four weeks ago, it already feels like they have been doing them forever, and I’m incredibly touched by what professional and trustworthy young people all of our Ambassadors have become. This is really evident through their approach and attitude to the Award and the opportunities available to them. And now, with just 9 sessions left, we are already trying to think of ways in which to create a second level of OPG for those who wish to continue with us, beyond the role of just being an Assistant Leader.
Today during presentations, I couldn’t help but remember some of the shy and very nervous people who arrived on the course back in September, with very little English and who were mousy quiet and easy to miss during sessions. Seeing them develop into really confident and professional people, that I have total faith in, and seeing even their posture and body language change, is just the best reward I could ever have imagined. And fills me with so much hope about them going out into the wider world and having an impact of every person who meets them in the future. It is like something has clicked in them, and they suddenly just get everything, and I would love to know whether their parents and teachers have picked up on this too. A lot of them really put your typical teenager to shame, especially in the western world.
I’ve been especially proud of two of our Project Leaders who work at the Zoo, and the 10 or so young people they have taken on to do conservation work at the Zoo as part of either the skill or service section of their Award. For the past few weeks, they have been meeting at the zoo for one hour a week minimum, and working with the staff there, on animals which they are interested in, and each has a designated member of staff who will now work with them on a specific project, and teach them everything they can about their chosen animal. The guys also have homework to do, and research to gather, and it is my dream to get funding so that both keepers and their mentees can go on conferences and courses together or create information for visiting school children about those species, or perhaps even visit some international zoos, in the long term. This is such an amazing opportunity for our guys, and huge kudos to Tbilisi Zoo for giving them such a fantastic opportunity. Tbilisi Zoo gets a lot of bad press, and by Western standards it is pretty shocking to see bears in small cages and pacing up and down, and the zoo’s location in the middle of a roundabout and main roads is far from ideal. The zoo lacks funds and resources, but it is trying hard to improve the enrichment of the animals living there and I think that in time, and with funds it will become a great zoo, that not just meets western standards, but also exceeds them. The staff are incredible and hard working and really keen to make the most of opportunities available to them, and I think that is truly demonstrated in the Zoo’s decision and co-operation in taking on our young people as part of their International Award for Young People. Supervising students and agreeing to host them each week and ensure their safety is no easy task. It takes patience and dedication, and I can’t praise Tbilisi Zoo enough in that respect, and I hope the collaboration between Tbilisi Zoo and OPG will be a long term and mutually beneficial one, whereby, we as an NGO can apply for funds for small educational projects, which will really help the Zoo and raise it’s status worldwide and help it to attract the funds and support that it needs to achieve it’s long term goals. Whilst also providing our young people with the passion and skills to help conserve nature, especially within the Caucasus.
I have a growing respect for our Ambassadors too. On the one hand, I am really jealous of the opportunities and experiences they have been having there, but I also know that I would not have the heart to feed animals the live foods or similar, as I’m far too much of a coward. I’m happy to look on in admiration, but I would never be able to feed a mouse, chicken, rabbit or whatever. I really respect the guys for their professionalism and commitment in this though and also those who dedicate their lives to working with animals, beyond the fact of them just looking cute.
The kids have been working incredibly hard with the keepers and enrichment co-ordinators. They have been helping to clean out cages, preparing feeds, feeding, studying, photographing, and doing much more fun stuff like handling and interacting with the animals (within reason obviously, and some of the photos are of keepers rather than our kids). And I know they have loved it, because it is all I have heard about from them all week!! It also excites me at the prospect of them being on expedition with Earthwatch over summer, and knowing how much they are going to benefit from tagging sharks, dissecting fish species, and studying coral, and they have really embraced the concept of hard work and knowing how and when to behave appropriately. They haven’t been phased by anything that has been thrown at them so far, and there have been no complaints of not wanting to do anything at all. These are guys who have chosen to do this, because they are passionate about it, and they respect what a big deal this is, and what an amazing opportunity, especially those looking to build up their CVs to study at university in the future. And I hope that OPG will be able to use its NGO status to offer some kind of scholarship for university in the future, as we have some great guys and not all of them will have the means to go on to further education, and it would be brilliant to enable them in whatever way we can, and to continue our motto of ‘rewarding excellence’.
The International Award has been a great tool for this, and I’m sure it makes a massive difference when it comes to getting work experience. Not only are they working in the zoo, but we have 14 year olds (the minimum age to start your Award) now volunteering in hospitals and shadowing doctors, and working as waitresses in giving food in homeless shelters, as well as learning new skills like reading English literature, photography, and doing physical activities like running and swimming. They are so disciplined and already I feel quite ashamed at how much they are doing compared to me.
I’m also really excited about our adventurous training week at the end of June, which we need to do to get our awards. This will involve a one week camp, run in conjunction with the other Independent Operators of the Award, and we will use this to teach map reading, navigation, knots, and plan a practice walk and camp. We then need some time to reflect on how it went, and to plan our ‘assessment’ weekend. Because we have decided to run it as a camp, rather than separate training weekends, this will allow us to invite some guest lecturers and to hopefully do some environmental and conservation work too, as well as a lot of outdoor activities like climbing, horse riding, and to interact with young people from Girl Guides and Scouts for example, and to have a practice run, before we decide on the final Ambassadors that we will take on expedition with Earthwatch over summer. Now we just need to get the funds to cover as much as we can! But I’m re-energised now for the week ahead, though I’m sad that we have no session next Saturday due to it being Easter holidays in Georgia, but I will be meeting with a group of them on Monday to talk about our educational session for 3-4 year olds on Wednesday!
So, I just wanted to share a few photos taken by the students in relation to their zoo work. I’m not including the feeding ones though!!! But I hope they will give some idea of just how amazing the kids are and the great experiences that the International Award has given them. And I know it really isn’t going to be long before Prince Edward (or whoever) is in Georgia and presenting them with their awards, But one thing is for sure, I’m going to be the blubbering wreck in the corner, because I’m super proud of them already!