Lee Richardson Zoo is one of Garden City's favorite attractions. We are proud to be such a shining part of our community. But the zoo staff doesn't do it alone. Ensuring the Lee Richardson Zoo remains a hidden treasure of the High Plains requires community support.

If you would like to be a part of that support network, join us for our volunteer coffee at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Finnup Center for Conservation Education. You will visit with current volunteers, meet our program animals and learn how our volunteer program at Lee Richardson Zoo can provide you with opportunities you will love. This year, our volunteer program has been restructured to accommodate an even larger variety of skill sets and individual schedules to better fit the lives of our volunteers.

In the past, our only structured volunteer program was for our docents, or education volunteers. We realize that many people are not comfortable talking in front of audiences, and there are a wide variety of people with different strengths.

For these reasons, we have created a tiered system for our volunteers. Lee Richardson Zoo now will have three levels of volunteers: Zoo ambassadors, enrichment specialists and docents. Each tier is specialized to meet your needs and help us both get the most out of our time together. No previous knowledge or experience is required for any of our volunteer positions. You provide the enthusiasm, and we will provide the training and support.

Zoo ambassadors will be the base level of volunteers. This level is for individuals who may have a limited amount of time to offer or are uncomfortable speaking to audiences. If you like to help out with special events, this could be the tier for you. If you would like to help but want to remain in the comfort of the indoors or like office work, this could be the tier for you. Like gardening? Then this could be the tier for you. There are innumerable ways you can help as a zoo ambassador. With a short amount of training, you can become a zoo ambassador. Individuals as young as 16 can volunteer as zoo ambassadors, so bring the family!

The next tier is the enrichment specialist. Enrichment is a term commonly used in the zoo field to refer to all of the things done to improve the quality of life for our animal collection. In captive situations, animals can become bored or suffer from ailments from being immobile. Through enrichment, the zookeepers keep this from happening by keeping the animals active both physically and mentally. It can come in many forms, including puzzle feeders that encourage mental stimulation and foraging behaviors, training animals for veterinary procedures or changing up treats and feed.

Zookeepers have very full schedules, and enrichment specialists can help zookeepers by prepping enrichment, thus enriching the daily lives of our animals. In addition, the enrichment specialists are trained to handle our program animals. Animals do not naturally want to be the center of attention during an education program. It takes time to train and acclimate an animal to being around groups of people.

Volunteers at this level help with regular handling of program animals to keep them tractable. These volunteers also can help in the same capacities as zoo ambassadors. Because this tier handles live animals, it does require more training, and you must be 18 or older.

The final tier of our volunteer program is the docent. Docents are our education volunteers. When you hear a child excitedly tell you how the "zoo person" came to their school today, it was probably a docent. Not only are they trained to handle animals like the enrichment specialist, but they also are trained to be an interpreter for the public.

Through our docents, we are able to reach out with our message of conservation and animal appreciation to a large number of people. Last year, our education team of docents and staff reached more than 36,000 people through educational programs. This is the tier that helps instill a connection with the natural world to others.

No matter which tier fits you, there are many rewards. By becoming a volunteer at Lee Richardson Zoo, you join of a wonderful group of people with a common interest in animals and the environment. You will be one of the first to know about happenings at the zoo, receive opportunities to see how things happen behind the scenes and become eligible for our recognition program. So join the Lee Richardson Zoo family and help us fulfill Lee Richardson Zoo's mission to instill appreciation and encourage stewardship of the Earth's natural treasures through the exhibition, conservation and interpretation of wildlife.

Come to the volunteer coffee at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Finnup Center for Conservation Education (located near the exit gate of the zoo) to learn more. Volunteers must be 16 or older. If you can't make it to the coffee but would still like to learn more about how you can be a part of the Lee Richardson Zoo team, call 276-1250 or e-mail tarra.tyson@gardencityks.us. Let Lee Richardson Zoo be part of your New Year's resolution.