Longtime Partnership with the Utica Zoo Provides a Great Experience and Job Readiness to Over 125 Youth

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With a mission of empowering individuals and families - our Independent Practice Association (IPA) network provides services that are responsive to the needs of our clients, and creates opportunities for youth to flourish in the community. Supported Work Groups have run for close to 20 years through the IPA, providing youth with group interaction, job readiness and a chance to make some money of their own!

Introducing Dave Organisciak of Oneida Youth, Inc.

Dave Organisciak has been a partner in our IPA for over 21 years, operating his own business - Oneida Youth, Inc. He provides services to youth, families, and individuals through Adult Health Home, HCBS, and our Kids Oneida program. His services include mentoring, behavior management, curfew checks and recreation. 

He has run many programs throughout the years like cooking groups and summer group recreational outings with the youth he serves. 

We are excited to tell you about his Supported Work group at the Utica Zoo!

How the Partnership Began

About ten years ago, Dave ran into Gary Mundschenk - Deputy Director of Grounds and Project Management at the Utica Zoo and told him about the youth he works with and how they wanted to be more involved in the community. Gary proposed having the youth come and help around the grounds, including preparation and cleanup for events. Gary and the Zoo welcomed this initiative and coupled with Gary’s experience working with at-risk youth, this was the perfect match. 

Beautifying the Zoo, Learning How it Operates and Getting to Meet Animals!

This year’s group of 13-18 year old teens met twice weekly on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout the summer and groups often continue into the fall to support some annual Zoo activities as well. 

The goal of the group each summer is to take on tasks that will make the Zoo feel welcoming, and at the same time support the community. The youth help with gardening – weeding, planting and mulching – as well as painting and general clean up, making sure areas like the pavilions are taken care of, and creating a nice environment for visitors. The group also helps keep the drainage system free of debris, ensuring there are no problems for the area it leads to. 

An aspect that the youth especially love is working alongside Zoo staff and the animals. The group helps with maintenance of current habitats and sometimes are even lucky enough to support the creation of brand new habitats in preparation for when a new animal arrives!  They also help with feeding the animals and gain exposure to the behind-the-scenes operations of successfully running a Zoo. They appreciate the freedom of the group, where they can do many different tasks but also learn so much. 

If you are someone who attends events at the zoo like Wine in the Wilderness or Spooktacular… the group plays an integral role in the set up and cleanup of those events. 

The Empowerment ICAN Provides

From the start of the program, youth that join the Supported Work Group are often shy and lack self esteem and self worth. This program is a great outlet and helps youth come out of their shells socially. 

The youth involved in this program are also involved in the Kids Oneida program at ICAN, (Learn More About Kids Oneida. | ICAN) coming from very diverse backgrounds, sensitivities and upbringings. With the exposure to the other members in the program, youth become aware of these differences and practice acceptance, empathy, understanding and more. It is an opportunity for the members of the group to meet new from different areas or school districts and build upon their strengths together. Many of the youth make lif-long friends and stay in contact with each other beyond the program.

Participants Get Workforce-Ready!

Aside from the physical work, this program helps youth become ready for the workforce, since this is treated as any real job would be. The youth have to be responsible for showing up, completing the task at hand and keeping time. As well as decision making, budgeting and organizational skills.There are weekly evaluations for the group, to check in on performance, attendance and the group dynamics. Corrections are made if necessary, like improving communication and social skills to ensure work is getting done and the group is successful.

Participants are paid a stipend for their work so they are able to save up for something they need like a computer or bike, or treat themselves to pizza and a movie. 

Appreciation from the Zoo

Over the course of the ten years this program has been run, around 125-150 youth have successfully completed the program. 

“It is always a pleasure working with the ICAN team during the summer - it is something that I look forward to every year. The most rewarding part of working with this group is watching them grow throughout their time here, and this year was an exceptional year” said Gary. “Both the youth and the staff were diligent in the duties assigned and were extremely hard-working. Every day that they were here, the Zoo looked better as a result of their efforts. On behalf of the Utica Zoo board of directors and staff, thank you ICAN for providing this rewarding experience for both the youth participants and our team here.”

Through collaboration and cooperative spirit, there is great success to be celebrated with the IPA’s Supported Work Groups. Working on projects together, members gain new confidence and a sense of belonging and a mindset of “I CAN” do this!