On Sunday, March 18, about 60 children and their University of Redlands mentors took a field trip from Big Buddies Redlands to the Los Angeles Zoo. The kids went wild a week earlier when we told them where we were going, and their attitudes were no different when we loaded up two buses to travel to L.A.
Big Buddies—a one-on-one mentorship program for elementary and middle school kids—meets for three hours every Monday evening for homework help, enrichment activities, and lots of fun. I was searching for a way to complete my community service requirement for the U of R when I discovered Big Buddies. I had experience coaching and tutoring young kids, so I decided to join the program at the beginning of my sophomore year.
Unfortunately, I joined at a time when there weren’t enough kids in the program for every college student to have a buddy, so I spent several months helping where I could and standing in for absent mentors. But one Monday during the spring semester, I noticed a new girl working on math during homework help, and I thought maybe, just maybe, she would end up being my buddy—and she did! I was paired with Essence that evening, and we’ve been best buddies ever since.
I had originally intended on leaving the program after completing my community service requirement, but when Essence asked me to continue on as her buddy in the fall, saying “no” didn’t even cross my mind. Although we have different favorite colors and disagree about whether pineapple belongs on pizza, Essence and I do agree that unicorns are awesome, boys are gross, and we have the coolest secret handshake.
Every year, Big Buddies raises money to take the entire program—children and U of R students—on a trip, free of charge. Essence and I have been on three field trips together: first Disneyland, then the California Science Center in L.A., and this time the L.A. Zoo. On this trip, after the children and mentors all posed for a group picture outside the zoo, it was off to the races, with mentors quite literally chasing after their buddies at times.
Essence and I, with a couple of fellow program members, explored practically the entire zoo. Essence was ecstatic over the flamingos—which might’ve had something to do with her favorite color—and the mystery of why they stand on one leg (a Google search revealed that it takes practically no muscle energy for flamingos to stand in such a way—who knew?). I enjoyed the river otters and their surprisingly obnoxious squeals and enthusiasm over a plastic cup.
A few other highlights included an elephant named Billy, a pair of sleeping hippos, a monkey grooming its friend, and, of course, the giraffes. Essence got to feed a giraffe and said of the experience, “The tongue is slimy and weird!”
When we grew tired in the afternoon, we fueled ourselves with cotton candy and soft-serve ice cream to push through the rest of the day. We walked a total of five miles, although I’m not sure how Essence managed it, considering she’s half my size. We certainly had a successful trip to the zoo, with only very mild sunburns. And, for the first time, I fell asleep on the ride home instead of her.
The next evening during Big Buddies, I asked a few mentors and mentees about their favorite parts of the trip and I received diverse answers.
“I watched a chimpanzee pick up a pinecone, closely inspect it, taste it, and then throw it away. I was just awestruck for some reason.”
—Sydney Baron, U of R Class of ’20
“I liked the giraffes, but their necks weren’t long enough.”
—Chris, age 11, Sydney’s buddy
“My favorite part was the otters, but I also really liked the meerkats. They were super cute and smaller than I thought they’d be.”
—Mariah Rodriguez ’18
“The animals were my favorite part … Well, I liked the otters because they were cute. They would go up to the glass where the fishes were, and every time someone put their hand on the glass, an otter would come up and open its mouth like it was going to eat them. The other best part was the shaved ice. That was good.”
—Ny’Leah, age 8, Mariah’s buddy
“My favorite part of the trip was seeing the giraffes. No particular reason—I just like giraffes.”
—Anna Brown ’21
“My favorite part of the zoo was seeing the bear because it was big and cool and furry.”
—Tori, age 10, Anna’s buddy
“My favorite part of the zoo trip was when we went to see the otters. They were really active, so when the kids would put their hands on the glass, the otters would come up and do the same thing. It was darling.”
—Katie Mefford ’19
“I was really excited about seeing the giraffes. I also got to climb in the roots of a big tree, so that was awesome.”
—Amber, age 13, Katie’s buddy
“I had two favorite parts. One of my favorite animals are otters, and we saw them go down the slide, and they looked so happy. My other favorite part was seeing the Tasmanian devils. I was picturing the spinning beast from Looney Tunes, but they were just these cute little animals running around. I think they might’ve run a marathon, they were going for so long.”
—Ben Galgano ’18
“The meerkats were my favorite. They were just chilling; they were cool.”
—Noah, age 14, Ben’s buddy
Thank you to everyone who attended our fundraisers and donated in order to make our trip to the zoo possible. And thanks to the Big Buddies directors and Community Service Learning staff for working so hard to keep such an important program up and running.