For the children of the Swift family, caring for the animals at Plum Creek Nature Center wasn’t an extension of their chores at home. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
The seven Swift kids — Molly, 16; Jerry, 15; Max, 13; Grace, 12; John, 10; James, 8; and Jane, 4 — had no pets at home a few years ago when the family began caring for Plum Creek’s resident animals: a turtle, a snake and a bearded dragon.
“They’ve all kind of grown attached to them,” mom Kathy Swift said of her kids' connection to the animals.
With no pets of their own when they started doing the animal care, it took a lot of hands-on learning to get up to speed on the required weekly tasks. She said they shadowed the Plum Creek staff for a day to learn the ropes and relied on the animal care binder that was available until they fully got the hang of it.
“And everyone’s always there if we have a question,” she said.
The oldest kids do most of the work to care for the animals, but the staff sometimes leaves projects for the younger kids as well. They also occasionally take on some extra tasks, such as cleaning out the mulch from the turtle cage.
And what they’ve learned at Plum Creek now comes in handy at home too, because the family now has some pets of their own: a turtle, a pair of fire-bellied toads and some fish.
LEARN MORE ABOUT VOLUNTEERING
They got started helping with the animal care in a roundabout way. The family was at the Plum Creek sled hill early one afternoon after a nice snowfall and had the place to themselves. One of the staff members at the nature center came out to talk with them and mentioned they were looking for people to help with caring for the resident animals, and Swift said they decided to offer their help.
The kids are homeschooled, and helping care for the animals is a nice supplement to what they are learning at home, Swift said.
“It’s actually something that they’ve learned that they can draw on,” she said.
Plus, she said, the kids, even the younger ones, enjoy helping, and they’ll often pitch in otherwise while they are there, doing things like cleaning up craft tables after field trips or categorizing the books in the nature library.
The Swifts have also helped at several Forest Preserve programs and special events through the years, including the "Kids’ Fishing Derby at Monee Reservoir," the "Hummingbird Festival & Nature Celebration," "Maple Syrup Magic" and "Salamander Safari." At some of these events, the older kids are able to man a station, providing information about the animals and answering visitors’ questions about them.
In addition to volunteering with the Forest Preserve, the family also helps at a local food pantry, Swift said, adding that the volunteer work has many benefits for the kids.
“It’s an important example to set for the kids,” she said. “They are learning many, many skills doing this.”
One of the biggest lessons she is trying to teach her kids is that it is important to make good on your commitments, even when schedules are busy.
“It’s not always going to be convenient. It’s not always going to be fun,” she said of volunteer work. “You have to make room for it and stick with it.”
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