The WNC Nature Center is excited to announce that they have been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Fewer than 10% of all zoos and aquariums in the world meet the standards to earn accreditation from the AZA. The WNC Nature Center has been accredited since 1999.
To earn AZA accreditation, zoos must meet rigorous standards in animal care, veterinary programs, conservation, education, safety and other areas. In addition to a very lengthy written application, the AZA also requires an intense multiple-day on-site inspection and an in-person hearing in front of the Accreditation Commission. AZA member institutions are required to repeat the entire accreditation process every five years to assure that they are upholding the continuously evolving standards, incorporating best modern zoological practices in animal welfare and management, and embracing modern AZA philosophies.
“The standards for accreditation are higher than they have ever been. We are proud that we continue to improve each and every year to meet these demands,” said WNC Nature Center Director Chris Gentile.
In addition to earning this coveted accreditation, the WNC Nature Center’s Young Naturalist program was also selected to receive a Significant Achievement Education Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The Young Naturalist teen (ages 13-17) volunteer program creates opportunities for staff and teens to build meaningful relationships with each other and with nature over several months in an experiential learning program in which teens from around the Southern Appalachian region volunteer as stewards and interpreters of their mountain home. The Young Naturalist program challenges the trend of indoor childhood by engaging teens in nature-based programming which ripples out into the community.
The program annually attracts and accepts more than 80 teens and young adults who are interested in nature and the environment, a number of which identify as LGBTQ+, as neurodivergent, as coming from low-income households in rural and urban areas, and as youth of color. The program has a powerful way of strengthening the community, developing leaders, and fostering a sense of stewardship for our mountain home.
Starting in 2020, the Young Naturalist program went virtual amid the pandemic to continue serving teens while following public health guidelines. Although this was the first time running the program in a distance learning format, Teen Program Coordinator Alayna Schmidt actively engaged teens in expanded learning opportunities that staff and teens co-developed in response to the disruption. By participating in online meetings for socializing and interactive lessons, interviewing guest speakers, collecting data for citizen science projects, exploring environmental justice maps, and other special projects, teens continued to be enriched and earn service hours while sheltering at home under public health guidelines. The distance engagement that program staff and teen participants co-created will continue to support program goals and objectives as in-person opportunities return following the pandemic.
Schmidt has won multiple grants to elevate the Young Naturalist program, including a recent $10,000 grant from the Children & Nature Network to strengthen the program while participating in a nationwide cohort exploring strategies for youth development and nature-based programming. “The Young Naturalist program has been an incredible asset to our community for over 40 years. It has gone through significant changes over the years, with the most significant changes coming from the pandemic,” said Schmidt. “The creativity of our teens helped adapt the program to the times and has made it stronger and more accessible than ever.”
Congratulations to the staff whose dedication to the animals, education programs, and conservation initiatives at the WNC Nature Center has earned them such high commendations!