Counselor makes Zoo camp fun and educational

News-DemocratJuly 13, 2014 

Long blond hair flying, Emmy Kelly moved easily down a winding path in the Children's Zoo, heading for the goat enclosure. She had two Camp Kangazoo campers in tow.

"Do you want a brush?" she asked Evelin Thalaeker, 7, as they entered the gated area that held the animals and a big container full of grooming brushes. Goats nudged and poked at their legs, making Evelin and fellow camper Alicia Westaby, 7, giggle. Emmy wisely moved the lanyard holding her St. Louis Zoo ID out of snacking range.

The 22-year-old, who lives in Belleville, graduated this spring from McKendree University with a bachelor of science in elementary education, a minor in English and an endorsement in social sciences. Her dream is to be a middle school teacher, but while she's job hunting -- "Maybe a principal will see this and hire me!" -- she's happy to be working with first- through sixth-graders at the St. Louis Zoo.

"I wanted more experience working with kids," she said of getting the May-August job. "Being a teacher, it sounded like a fun opportunity. Plus, conservation is a big issue with me, and the chance to educate these young campers is great."

With two weeks of training and orientation under her belt, Emmy sees a different batch of kids weekly who come for the day camp. Her pedometer, before it broke, said she walks 5 to 6 miles a day.

"I got to bed at 8:30 every night."

She keeps kids busy doing everything from morning zoo hikes to working on creating a comic book about "Super Survivors" -- "We teach them about how animals adapt to survive" -- to games that teach conservation and the chance three times during the week to interact with animals.

It's a 55-hour week for Emmy, who typically is at the zoo from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

By Friday mornings, though, she already has been at the zoo since the morning before, with a break for dinner. It's the campers' weekly overnighter.

"I sleep in my uniform," she said, grinning, then adding: "I washed my hair in the sink this morning."

She and other counselors and about 200 campers on Thursday night are involved in singing and eating pizza with parents, taking night hikes, then settling into sleeping bags outdoors, depending on the weather.

"We have to be prepared," Emmy said. "Normally, we're outside, but we're in the Living World when it rains."

And what special training does it take to make sure you have all your campers accounted for?

"We count nonstop!"

The benefits for Emmy are more than just saving money for her June 2015 wedding to Jason Koonce, 28, of Dupo.

"On a morning hike to River's Edge, I had 6-year olds," she began. "We walked by a stream and someone had littered with a bottle. A girl in the group said, 'That makes me really mad!' I've done my job."

For more information about zoo education programs, go to

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