Thursday, April 9, 2015

Back to My Roots : Telling Stories that Inspire

During my California adventure, I spent most of my time back in my hometown of Simi Valley. After the bridal shower and bachelorette party, I didn't have as much on my plate so when I met up with my good friend and former editor, Kyle, for lunch I asked if the newspaper was in need of any freelancers. He thought I was joking at first, saying "Don't tease!" but I told him that I could use the money, something to do and fresh clips. So he put me to work! My first story was more newsy, covering a forum that aimed to bolster awareness of bullying and sexual harassment in local schools and what policies the district has in place to prevent and address such issues. It was an interesting forum but, to be honest, my favorite part was running into my old AP U.S. History teacher, who was the chair of the event. She said she remembered me (though I think teachers feel like they have to say that) and she was so proud of the work I was doing. While working as the lead reporter for the Simi Valley Acorn for five years, I often ran into and even interviewed former teachers, and it was always a sort of surreal, the-tables-have-turned experience.

I still have one more story to finish up for the paper, about bird banding of all things, but today I wanted to share the second story I wrote because it truly moved me and reminded me why I love journalism. My passion is telling other people's stories, particularly heartwarming and emotional ones that inspire. Sometimes these feature stories are the hardest for me to write, simply because I strive so desperately to tell the story correctly, truthfully, authentically, and to move the reader the way it moved me.

This was my assignment: Jenna, a visually-impaired Simi Valley high school student, was going to get a special, one-of-a-kind tour of the Los Angeles Zoo that would allow her to "see" some of the wildlife through touch. I was to accompany her on her tour and write about her experience at the zoo.  I'll break here, so if you'd like to follow Jenna along on her day at the zoo, you can read the story below...

(Photos by RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers)
MEET-AND-GREETLynne Getz, a docent at the L.A. Zoo, helps Jenna Barry, a Royal High School sophomore, touch a boa snake at the zoo on March 12. Jenna, who is blind, was given a personal, hands-on tour.

A touching experience
Teen ‘sees’ zoo animals with her hands

Like clockwork, at 9:30 on a beautiful Southern California morning, a stream of yellow school buses pulled up outside the Children’s Discovery Center at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens last week.

Out of each poured a gaggle of eager kids whose raucous voices and laughter revealed their excitement for a day at the zoo.

Among the students filling the sidewalk was Royal High School sophomore Jenna Barry, along with about 10 of her classmates.

While they lined up with the rest of the students for their guided tours, Jenna nervously waited to embark on her own excursion—one unlike any other zoo guest experiences.

Jenna is blind. The 17-year-old has optic nerve atrophy, a condition diagnosed in infancy, said her parents, Glenn and Lisa Barry.
While their daughter has no central vision, she does have some peripheral sight, though not in color or great detail.
Because she can’t see the animals, Jenna had never been to a zoo. But after Royal High looked into what types of services the L.A. Zoo could offer teens with special needs peers, a specialized, hands-on tour was arranged, allowing her to “see” some of the zoo’s remarkable creatures through the power of touch.
“She just loves animals, especially cats,” Glenn Barry told the Acorn a few days before the March 12 tour. “I imagine they’ll let her pet something, which will just be a thrill.”
Seeing through feeling
ROUGH ANTLERS—Jenna Barry and Lynne Getz examine a set of 

antlers during a tour of the L.A. Zoo. Because Jenna is blind, she 

received a personal, hands-on tour, learning about animals through touch.
Jenna’s morning began in a classroom inside the Children’s Discovery Center.
Docent Lynne Getz didn’t waste any time, immediately leading the teen to a table filled with animal pelts and bones. Getz guided Jenna’s hand over each one while describing the animal and teaching her about why they feel the way they do.
First up was an otter pelt.
“Feel how thick and how close all the hair is,” said Getz, a docent since 2005 who has experience working with the visually impaired. “Doesn’t that feel good?”
Next they rubbed the pelt of a margay, a small feline that is native to Central and South America. Getz advised Jenna to run her hand from head to tail to get a sense of its size, and then along its claws, which retract just like the teen’s beloved house cat, Baxter.
Together they examined many more specimens: the rough fur of a pronghorn antelope, a fluffy red fox pelt, a baby bear paw, a pair of antlers, shed snake skin and two kinds of bird nests. Jenna also felt bones—real and replica—including the skulls of a warthog, polar bear, rhinoceros, giraffe and elephant, comparing the size of their teeth and the placement of their eyes.
“The zoo is about connecting people with wildlife, and a tactile tour for those who are visually impaired is the best way we can make that connection,” said Kirin Daugharty, manager of volunteer programs. “It allows the visitor a mental takeaway that they wouldn’t otherwise have available to them. A verbal description of a tiger is one thing; touching a pelt, skull or claw is another.”
Though shy around strangers, Jenna listened intently to Getz during the classroom experience, and eventually the docent’s enthusiastic personality worked its magic.
Jenna began to feel more comfortable, a smile forming at the corner of her lips.
The highlight came when the 10th-grader got up-close with an elephant’s leg bone.
“Right now you are standing next to the bones of an elephant,” Getz told Jenna, instructing her to reach down and feel its toes and then move upward, higher and higher.
TALL LEG—Lynne Getz, left, guides Jenna
Barry's hands up an elephant leg bone. The
L.A. Zoo offers docent-led tours to visitors
with special needs.

“I can’t reach it,” Jenna said with a giggle, to which Getz replied, “I know! That’s how tall an elephant is. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
The duo then left the classroom to tour the zoo grounds.
Jenna walked slowly, making her way with the help of a cane and verbal assistance from her aide, as other schoolchildren ran past. If she was daunted by the noise and activity around her, or the unfamiliar environment, Jenna didn’t show it; she kept moving forward.
“That’s why I think she’s so courageous, to overcome those fears and still be a normal teenager,” said Kristine Bates, a Simi Valley Unified School District aide who works exclusively with Jenna.
Along a path lined with native chaparral, flowers bloom, trees sway in the breeze and birds dart from branch to branch.
Though Jenna couldn’t see these things, Getz helped her envision them by having her feel the leaves on the trees and shrubs and listen to the finches and sparrows as they dined at a hanging bird feeder.
“She’s very detail-oriented,” Bates said of Jenna. “She’s very inquisitive. She wants to know what’s going on around her. She asks a lot of questions. And she wants to know ‘why.’”
Interactive stations at the discovery center provided personal encounters with live animals, including a rabbit and a boa constrictor. And later Jenna met, and petted, Shetland sheep, Nigerian dwarf goats and a miniature horse at Muriel’s Ranch.
She left the petting zoo with a souvenir: a piece of sheep’s wool she stuffed into her pocket for safekeeping.
“When I tell my mom about my day at the zoo, she’s going to be so jealous,” Jenna said.
Her last stop before meeting her classmates for lunch was a ride on the zoo’s carousel. Getz and Bates described the various animal figures she could ride, and Jenna said she wanted a cat; any cat would do. So they helped her climb aboard a lion, king of the jungle.
Just like when she hopped off the bus that morning, Jenna was a bit nervous, unsure of what was about to happen.
But as the ride got going, she let her guard down, smiling from ear to ear as she spun round and round.
“It’s been really fun,” Jenna said about her time at the zoo, listing most of the day’s activities as favorites. “At first I was a little nervous . . . (but after a while) I started to feel excited because I was touching stuff that no one else could.”

Jenna is such a sweet and incredibly courageous young woman and it was a pleasure to meet her. Walking around the zoo, I couldn't help but notice all the beauty around us. It was a warm, sunshine-filled Southern California day. In addition to all the wildlife housed at the zoo, the property, also a botanical garden, is strewn with lush and colorful plantings and flowers. There was so much to see and Jenna couldn't see it. This fact struck me suddenly while strolling the pathway with her and my jaw clenched as I felt my eyes begin to water. I swallowed that emotion but let the feeling of gratitude sink in. Spending the afternoon with someone who doesn't have their sight, but continues to charge forward through life with grace, strength and optimism really puts things into perspective. 

Covering Jenna's day at the zoo truly awakened my soul in more ways than one. It reminded me what my calling is, what I am meant to do: to share people's stories. I have so many interests and passions and different endeavors that I'd like to pursue, but I can't ignore how I feel when I go into journalist mode, when I sit for hours to craft the perfect story, when I see my writing in print. My joy is heightened when the story is appreciated by those who read it, and especially by those who it was written about. The week after the story was published, I received a thank you note, in brail, from Jenna. I will cherish it and my experiencelike many of the experiences I've had as a journalistforever.

As always, thank you for reading!

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