When he was a little kid, Troy Frison always liked the zoo, so when his mentor at the Boys & Girls Club recommended him for the Oregon Zoo's Urban Nature Overnight, or UNO, program, Frison was excited.
“I had a real cool counselor. He probably made it a better experience than normal because he was super-fun,” said Frison, who participated in the program in 3rd grade. “UNO opened my mind to a lot more things. I was stuck on sports growing up. This program opened my mind about conservation and nature.”
Designed to actively engage historically underrepresented Portland area youth in outdoor recreation and conservation, the program has provided camping trips for 4,561 urban youth and school year programming for 1,054 urban youth since it launched in 2000. The program is a partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and other community partners.
This week, the UNO program is celebrating 15 years of operations with a Tuesday evening bonfire at the zoo. Organizers expect about 90 attendees, including many alumni and their kids.
Jody VanRiper has been running the UNO program for 14 of its 15 years. She said she has a strong connection to nature, and it's special for her to share that with others.
"This is specifically a program for low income, ethnically and culturally diverse kids and it’s part of the zoo’s goal to reach out to community members with our conservation messages," VanRiper said in an email. "It’s fun to get kids outside and away from electronics to open their eyes to the natural world. Through this program, the zoo and Metro have been committed to diversity for 15 years."
VanRiper said one of the many ways the program is successful is that young participants frequently return as teens to mentor new students in the UNO program.
Frison is one of the returning teens. When he was 15, he applied and was accepted to the zoo's Zoo Animal Presenters, or ZAP, program a 3-year paid internship for low-income, diverse teenagers. ZAP aims to provide job skills, positive youth development, and an introduction to conservation education.
First-year ZAP members give animal presentations in the community. Second year ZAP members serve as counselors and teachers in the UNO program. Third-year ZAP members mentor new UNO counselors, teach waste reduction to kids, participate in field conservation work, and intern in the zoo’s butterfly lab and veterinary medical center.
“This is the most enjoyable thing I’ve done as a job,” Frison said. “Kids will come in – all of them are really city kids. They are based off technology so they aren’t really that interested when the overnighter begins. A lot of times at the end of the trip it’s the stubborn kid who wasn’t into it that has the most to say about the trip and is the most enthusiastic. I get it because I was the stubborn kid."
Frison is now 19 and after completing his three years in the ZAP program, he was hired on as an UNO staff member for the year.
One of Frison's co-workers, Tracy Ocampo, first experienced the UNO program as a teen mentor. Now she is the UNO Assistant Coordinator.
Ocampo, 23, said she doesn't know where she'd be if she hadn't become an UNO teacher as a teen.
"I feel like it opened me up to this whole new world of environmental education that I had no idea existed before. We really had no idea how to be in nature, how to act in nature," she said. "I love seeing the impact on the little kids. Most of the time it's their first camping experience ever. The fact that they are seeing these teens that look like them leading the trips is just really important. There are many layers of mentorship in the program."
UNO is partially funded by the Oregon Zoo Foundation. Since 2000, the foundation has provided $1.6 million for the ZAP and UNO programs.
Jani Iverson, director of the Oregon Zoo Foundation, said she is thrilled to be celebrating 15 years of UNO.
"The zoo helps connect kids and families with the natural world every day, and UNO is bringing those important experiences out into the community and reaching children who might not otherwise have access to the outdoors or the zoo," she said. "The foundation has been an essential partner since UNO's inception, and the program continues to represent the tremendous impact our devoted community can have in supporting the zoo."
UNO participants are identified by community partner organizations. For more information about UNO, visit its website.