Jackie Entz: Helping Education Take Flight

By Brad McEwen

To say that my first encounter with Chehaw Director of Education Jackie Entz was somewhat unusual is a bit of an understatement.

As proud Rawson Circle residents it’s not uncommon for the McEwen clan to mount our bicycles and make our way over to Tift Park to enjoy the playground or the Saturday market, or even just a relaxing South Georgia afternoon, but it is rather odd for us to venture to the venerable downtown park and stumble across a girl tracking her pet hawk through the oaks and pines as it stretches its wings and looks for a snack.

But that’s exactly what the wife and kids and I encountered the day we first bumped into Jackie and her friend Morgan Burnette, herself Chehaw’s director of community engagement, one weekend a few years ago.

Suffice it to say I was more than a little intrigued about meeting an area resident whose hobby is “hawking,” and I have remained fascinated by her deep interest in birds of prey ever since.

Over the years, however, the chief thing that has impressed me about Jackie—and the reason I’ve come to consider her one of my favorite people and a true asset to the community—is not the fact that I’m apt to get a kick out of running into her in the Michael’s parking lot looking after her pet Cooper’s Hawk as it forages around in the lot’s landscaping looking for an afternoon nibble.

What really draws me to individual my family affectionately calls, ‘the bird girl,’ is the unbridled enthusiasm Jackie has for sharing her love of animals with anyone she encounters, especially children, and her earnest desire to have a positive and lasting impact on her community.

 “They just fascinate me,” Entz says of the critters she’s spent her life focusing on. “I’ve always been fascinated by them. When I was little my nickname was Princess Blackfoot because I was always outside and I never had shoes on and I brought everything home that you could imagine. My poor parents! I’d come home and be like, ‘mom, I found this frog let’s keep him. Mom I found this snake, can I keep it?’ ‘Mom, I found a baby, injured crow. I found a box of kittens, let’s keep all of them.’ I just love animals.

“And I love sharing my knowledge of them with other people.”

That fascination with all forms of wildlife—chief among them birds and reptiles--which she’s had since she was a little girl growing up in Illinois and later in Lee County, eventually led Entz to study biology at Georgia Southern University, where she not only gained a wealth of knowledge, earning both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the field, but she also stumbled onto a path that would define her career and set her on a course to enrich the lives of others.

According to Entz a major turning point for her came after she scored a job while in school working at a wildlife center on the university’s grounds, and it was there that she found her true calling.

“That is what really turned my passion and really kind of brought everything together,” Entz reminisced. “I got to work with eagles, hawks, owls, falcons—which is how I got into birds of prey—and then there were also reptiles, but another component was that we were doing education programs. So we had school groups that came through.”

While working with those school groups Entz said she discovered a true passion for working with children and realized she wanted to use her knowledge of the natural world to bring about positive change in their lives.

 “They’re magical; they just light up,’” Entz says of children. “I like doing adult presentations because it’s nice to talk to adults instead of children all the time, but I LOVE working with the kids. They can be so malleable. I have this kid, at 5 or 6 years old, that may have been afraid of snakes or spiders or something their whole life and in one 30 minute encounter I can see a little light bulb click and this child’s life has changed forever.”

That transformation, Entz said, is especially powerful in her mind because the impact of that change is often exponential.

“It’s not just their life that’s changed,” Entz explained. “I know that when you affect a five year old, not only are you affecting them for the rest of their life, but it’s this ripple effect. It affects their parents. It affects the other kids that they meet. So, when they’re walking through the woods or when they’re just doing something outside, they are also going to affect the other kids that are around them.

“That’s a big draw for me about education, just seeing that change. And you really CAN see it, sometimes in a five second encounter. You can watch it happen. It’s really cool.”

Of course Entz is also very direct about her motivation to spread not only an appreciation for living things, but also to help children learn about the concepts of conservation and environmental protection, subjects that she believes are vitally important to our community.

 “Everybody says education is the future and that what we learn about we want to protect; what we see we want to protect. So, for me that’s kind of where part of the draw is,” Entz said. “I really love animals and I want to make sure that there are future populations of them for generations down the road.”

While I have no doubt Entz would be working diligently to foster love and appreciation for animals and the environment wherever she might have ended up, I believe this community is incredibly fortunate to have her here.

And for her part Entz considers herself lucky to have an outlet like Chehaw from which to organize her efforts to educate people about the importance of nature.

It was actually the presence of the nearly 1000 acre nature preserve and zoo in her adopted hometown that has helped her further her dream of impacting others and she’s convinced the unique park plays a vital role in child development.

“Chehaw really is a treasure for this area,” Entz said with affection. “It’s just special. And what makes Chehaw even more special, not that other zoos aren’t amazing and great, but it’s all of the nature and all of the wildlife that is out here. Obviously there’s urban wildlife everywhere, but we have a lot of populations of native animals—snakes, deer, raccoon, opossums, and my favorite gopher tortoise—that are right here on the park.

“People not only get to come and visit the zoo, they also get to walk the nature trails. And one of the biggest things that they’re finding for kids is that just being outside and being in nature increases brain capacity. It decreases stress. The fact that you can get in the car, drive 10 minutes, go play at the play park, then go walk around the zoo for an hour and then go home is absolutely amazing. It’s a treasure. You can’t put an amount of money on that. You’re talking about social development, mental development, and physical development.”

Interestingly though Entz said that despite having lived in the area for several years before college and being aware of Chehaw, she had no intention of returning to Albany after finishing school.

“I actually moved to Albany, well Lee County, in middle school,” Entz said. “I started 7th grade and then I went through high school and I was like, ‘oh man, I’m never coming back. I’m leaving.’ So I packed up my bags and went to Georgia Southern.”

Fortunately for this community—and for the thousands of area children whose lives she’s touched during her years at the park—Entz encountered a struggling economy shortly after graduation which forced her consider a return to the area.

Entz said she decided to take a part time job while looking for something more permanent in far flung places like Ohio and once here discovered things were much different than she had realized and she has since become an advocate for the area, working hard to promote the great things Albany and Southwest Georgia have to offer.

“I was applying for jobs again, looking around and saw that Chehaw was hiring for a summer camp counselor and I went ‘oh this is cool,’” Entz explained. “Having come back from college and seeing Albany in a different light, not as a teenager, I was like, ‘Albany’s really cool. We have a lot to offer.’

“A lot of times it’s hard to realize what’s in your own backyard but I’ve actually had a lot of people who have moved to Albany and their comment was, ‘I had a choice between these three cities and I chose to come to Albany because you have a zoo, you have an aquarium, you have a museum. Who wouldn’t want to come here?’ I mean Chehaw is such an asset to the community.

“And I really liked coming back because I realized while I was here at Chehaw that working at a zoo was something I wanted to do. It confirmed that for me. I knew I had to work in a zoo.”

And, Entz said, not just any zoo.

“I knew I didn’t want to work in a concrete jungle and I felt like if I had gone to Ohio that it would have been all this city around me and I wouldn’t have been able to escape as much. So here was absolutely perfect because being in a smaller setting I get to do more with the zookeepers. I get to know them. I get to be more hands-on with the animals.”

Perhaps more importantly though, at Chehaw Entz found the right place for not only following her dream of working in a zoo, but also a place where she could develop and expand education programs in an effort to have a greater impact on a larger group of people.

In addition to developing and coordinating numerous presentations at area schools, presenting data about the park and its wildlife to area civic groups and developing programs within the zoo—all with a focus on giving others a greater understanding of the natural world—she’s been the driving force behind bolstering the park’s camp programs, which have become an important part, not only of the park’s operating plan, but of countless children’s summer plans.

While the park’s camps serve the function of giving parents something for their children to do while out of school, the extensive camp programs are also a key avenue for Entz to focus her passion for touching the lives of area youth and teaching them about the world around them.

In the eight years since she’s has taken over Chehaw’s camp program—which is highlighted by multiple camp sessions throughout the summer as well as camp sessions during fall, winter and spring breaks—Entz estimates the camp staff have impacted thousands of children from the community and beyond as the program continued becoming more robust. This year alone Chehaw will be offering nine weeks of camp, including 15 day camp sessions and three week-long sleep-away camps, and Entz is anticipating in excess of 300 children attending at various sessions.

“The very first year that I was here the biggest camp that I did was like 17 kids,’ Entz shared. “And we only had half day camps. That was one of the biggest things that we changed. We went to all day camps. When you have a camp you also have to recognize that you need to make it so that it’s easy for parents to get their kids here because parents have jobs, they need for their children to be somewhere and so why not take them to a place where they’re going to learn to have fun.

“Eight years ago, we’d have 15, 16, 17 kids, one camp counselor and a couple of youth volunteers, now cut to your average week and we’re looking at anywhere between 40 and 45 kids and running four and five camp counselors deep just to keep up with the demand. I would say we probably had a good 250-275 kids that came through last summer for camp. We had a pretty good number of campers.”

While the sheer number of kids that have spent time at one or more of the park’s several weeks of camp is impressive, Entz is most proud of the difference she believes the camps have made in the lives of area children and the subsequent impact those campers have had on their community.

Entz said that as a direct result of the park’s most popular camp, Junior Zookeepers (which extends beyond the summer months), she’s built several lasting relationships and has watched as some “Junior Zoos,” as she calls them, have gone on to pursue educational paths and even careers connected to wildlife.

“I have to say Junior Zoos is probably one of my favorites,” she said. “With the regular campers they come for a week, but then they’ll go do another camp or they’ll go to a grandparent’s or on vacation. With the Junior Zookeepers a lot of them come three, four, five days out of the week for a solid 10 weeks and then they come on weekends during the year too. So I really get to see these kids grow. I actually have a Junior Zookeeper that’s at Zoo Atlanta now. She works there. She was really inspired by what she did here. To me that’s really cool.”

Although she understands that not all of the hundreds of kids that come to camp each summer, or who are regulars at the zoo, are going to go on to careers in zoos or study biology like she did, Entz firmly believes that the things they learn during their time with her will inform the decisions they’ll make later in life and that those decisions will have lasting impact.

 “They’re basically all over the map and to me what’s really cool about it is, all these kids that come through the program don’t have to go into environmental education to make a difference,” Entz said with a broad smile. “What’s great to me is that these kids are going to go into all these different fields having a love and passion for biology and the environment. So now, in their everyday life, whether they’re doctors, or dentists, whether they manage a restaurant, they’re going to maybe make eco-conscience decisions.

“For the restaurant example, they might think of their time at Chehaw and about composting and biodegradability and think, ‘you know what, we’re going to nix Styrofoam. We’re going to make sure we only use paper.’ They’re going to make these conscience decisions throughout the rest of their life that will hopefully impact our ecosystem.”

Entz also sees another, more direct benefit of exposing a child to something new at a summer camp—the idea that the camp might simply bring something fun and positive into a life filled with potentially difficult situations.

“From a nurturing standpoint I believe that we’re affecting these kids’ lives, even minus the animals, in a positive way. Some of these kids that come to camp they don’t always have the greatest of situations in their school or in their home. There’s a lot of them that have come back and said, ‘you know, Chehaw changed my life.’

“Keeping kids busy, having something for them to do, helps them stay out of trouble and then they also develop friendships here. I’ve had a couple that have been homeschooled all their life, come here, then switch to public school, and because they’ve been able to make friends here, they realized, ‘I can do that other places. I don’t have to be scared.’

“The fact that Chehaw’s a safe place for them, where they can learn and develop, that really makes me feel good.”

Although Entz puts an intense amount of focus onto the park’s camp program, she’s also proud of the additional outreach the education department has taken part in recently.

It’s not uncommon to see Jackie, or other members of the Chehaw educational team at different civic events and programs, surrounded by groups of jubilant children patiently waiting their turn to touch a corn snake or staring raptly into the eyes of Maverick, a veteran Red-shouldered hawk that’s part of the park’s educational menagerie.

The team also spends a lot of time traveling to surrounding communities like Bainbridge and Cordele and even farther away places like Tallahassee, Douglas and Valdosta educating children and promoting the park itself, which has a direct impact on the community as many of the people they encounter end up visiting Chehaw, and subsequently the Albany area at some point.

Additionally Entz has taken her mission of educating people and impacting lives outside of Chehaw, working as a Biology teacher at Albany State University for the better part of the past seven years, all in an effort to reach a wider and broader audience and generate a greater positive impact.

“Personally I like seeing people, especially kids, learn about animals,” Entz said. “I guess that’s why I want to know as much about animals as possible, not only so I can answer all the questions for my own personal gain, but because I like sharing that information. I like that I can make a difference.”

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen