The zookeeper

I haven't asked Ben what he wants 'to be' when he grows up for years. But a story in the new BLOOM magazine woke me up. It's an interview with author Amy Baskin about the dearth of possibilities for young adults with developmental disabilities. When they age out of high school at 21, they're not qualified to do anything, nor are they entitled to any ongoing education or daily activity. There are limited traditional options, like sheltered workshops where participants make 40 cents per hour. Or they can sit at home and watch TV all day. But if you want your adult child to have a meaningful life -- something that speaks to their passions and dreams -- you have to create it for them.

So after all these years, I asked Ben again: "Where would you like to work when you're older? Where would you like to have a job?"

"The zoo," he signed.

"What would you do there?"

"Feed the animals."

My son fancies himself a zookeeper, throwing silvery fish and corn husks to the polar bears.

I fell into a terrible funk this afternoon as we walked around the pavilions at the Metro Toronto Zoo, spread over miles, recognizing that this dream is not practical for a child who can only hobble along for a few minutes at a time. He sat in his wheelchair with his face close to the glass, watching the zookeeper on her elevated platform lob lunch to the lumbering bears with dirty coats. "When can I feed them?" he signed.

I asked the zookeeper if visitors were ever allowed to throw the food. No, she said. The animals receive limited portions that couldn't be divvied up among the hundreds of children who would line up.

Ben stretched out his hand to shake hers.

"How do you become a zookeeper?" I asked.

"They look for people with a biology background," she said.

I wasn't sure if "they" were universities recruiting people into their zoology programs or zoos themselves.

I googled "How to become a zookeeper" and found this interesting piece by someone from the Jacksonville Zoo. They have about 100 applications for every spot, it says. Interestingly, the minimum requirement is a high-school degree (which Ben won't get). The HR person says the best way to get your foot in the door is to volunteer at a zoo and get as much experience as possible with a variety of animals.

I searched our Toronto Zoo for volunteer opportunities but the website states that volunteers "have no direct contact with animals or plants (I did touch some enormous fuzzy leaves today on a tree in an exhibit that mimics the Indonesian rainforest!)."

This weekend, one of my daughters was asked to look in on a hamster who's going solo at a neighbour's house. "That's the perfect job for Ben!" I told my husband. Ben doesn't have the strength to walk a dog or lift a big bag of pet food, but hamster food can't be heavy. However, when I asked if Ben could feed the hamster, my daughter was nonplussed.

I'll have to put the word out that Ben is looking for odd jobs.

I wrote an article years ago about a single dad who was pounding the pavement looking for job opportunities for his teenage son who had Down syndrome. I didn't realize at the time that I would eventually wear his shoes.

I'm in a parenting marathon that has only just begun. But I already feel burnt out.

How do you pace yourself and keep your spirits up?

Happy New Year!