Students from Southridge High’s exceptional students program visit places like Monkey Jungle each week to get job experience.
by Elizabeth Caram
“Monkeys let out high-pitched squeals and swing from branch to branch when students from Southridge High visit their Jungle each Thursday.
It sounds like a good time, but they are not there to monkey around — they all have work to do.”
Each of the eight students who work at Monkey Jungle on Thursday has a mental handicap. Their IQs range from 20 to 60. A few have Down syndrome.
They are accompanied by teacher Norris Joyner, who watches as they tackle their chores.
They aren’t glamorous jobs, either. Some go into a miniature kitchen and get to work chopping monkey food: pineapples, cantaloupe, grapes, apples and watermelon — a diet that would make even Oprah Winfrey’s personal trainer proud.
And some of the primates are on diets.
King, the 35-year-old resident gorilla, weighs about 450 pounds. His caretakers want to keep it that way, because male gorillas in captivity have a tendency to become a tad portly — hence, the fruit and vegetable diet.
While some kids chop up the fruit that will help keep monkeys slim, others hit the grass with buckets full of soapy water and brushes.
Their job: get the, uh, stuff, off the monkey carriers employees use when they have to take the animals from one place to another.
Some scrub and others dry. Others choose to simply watch, or ”chill” as they like to call it.
The ”chillers” are ”taking the day off.” At least that’s what Joyner says about Alejandro Arencibia and Alfred Jones, both known for choosing to watch most of the times.
While those two watch, Matthew Turner keeps busy by scrubbing shelves — even while he is chatting away and showing off his Usher-like dance moves.
It is difficult for most adults to be around people like Matthew, who has Down syndrome, but not for Joyner.
”Don’t feel sorry for them. They’re the happiest people on earth,” he said with a broad smile.
“God blessed them with something else.”
Joyner, who teaches 39 students along with Frank Christ and Tobe Marmorstein, is not the only teacher supervising a Thursday work site.
Christ takes a group of students to Bee Heaven, a farm that grows organic vegetables (and uses their own bees for pollination). Here, kids do farm work. They pull weeds and plant seeds.
Christ credits his fellow teachers with doing an excellent job, explaining that each one of the three play different roles in the classroom.
‘Mr. J. nails the kids when they misbehave and just tells it like it is. Then Ms. M. will come in and nurture the student, saying, `it’s OK.’ I’m the reinforcement,” Christ chuckles.
But at each location Thursdays, the three teachers are on their own.
They do just fine, especially when people like Sian Evans are around to help. Evans, the managing director at the DuMond Conservancy at Monkey Jungle, developed the partnership with Southridge.
”The kids really enrich our lives,” Evans said. “I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Evans said everyone benefits.
”The kids love it, we need the help and enjoy having them with us and even the monkeys are happier when the kids are around,” Evans said in her office, walls plastered with primate posters.
Not everyone can work with monkeys, though. Marmorstein’s kids work at The Palace, an assisted-living community in Homestead.
With responsibilities like setting the dining-room tables and helping with laundry, the Palace kids learn important skills that can help them get a job at a place like McDonald’s, which is exactly where Tequiesh Cooper wants to work someday.
Back at the Jungle, Michelle Fonseca hand fed Miss Fuzzy, an owl monkey that had a baby just one week ago.
Michelle was the first one in the class to try hand feeding. Usually the kids place food bowls in the monkey cages.While the kids’ jobs are not what could be called ”normal,” a Garfield poster in their classroom offers a comforting thought: “Normal is overrated.”
© 2005 Herald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
Very Special Volunteers
Vjolca Jessica Capri,
New College of Florida
New educational programs that help mentally challenged individuals function in society are a fresh perspective in education. One such program has bolstered the self-confidence of mentally challenged students at Southridge High School in Miami. This program uses a new approach in preparing these students to enter the job world. This program is a community-based instruction that is rooted no in typical high school-related subjects, but instead in learning functional living skills.
Monkey Jungle and the DuMond Conservancy offers a supplementary program once a week that allows students to go out into the community and practice their skills. Students help in all sorts of activities ranging from preparing primate meals and maintaining cages to caring for and learning about the different species of monkeys here. The students look forward to the weekly visits to the Conservancy, and they are more optimistic about entering the job world.
One student in particular, Darrel Davis, a senior at Southridge, has improved substantially in both his work production and his perception of what he can accomplish. From working side by side with zoo keeper, Tim Johnson, Darrel has gained a new sense of self-worth. Tim has benefited from the help of an assistant who follows directions and understands the importance of quality work.
Monkey Jungle provides a routine and familiar environment that is perfect for his level of learning and helps to prepare Darrel and the other students for work environment when they graduate from high school.
We would like to thank all of the students and their teachers, Mr. Norris Joyner and Ms. Celeste Cobbs for their continued participation in the program.