PRJUSD students learn life skills for future employment

PASO ROBLES — Paso Robles Joint Unified School District (PRJUSD) engages in alternative education in various forms, but one of its classes in particular has been making a big difference in the community. The Independent Skills Program, which technically operates under the arm of Liberty High School, focuses on helping its students navigate daily life and develop skills needed in order to live independently. 

For the past five years, Blaise Smith, one of the teachers of the Independent Skills Program, has been taking his class out to Zoo To You, where the students volunteer to help in any and every way they can. 

“When we got out to the zoo we are working on job readiness skills,” Smith told the Paso Robles Press. “You know — time management, teamwork — we are working on work ethic, hygiene, grooming. Really all the soft skills needed for employment. Some days we work at the Zoo and others we work at a car wash or whatever it may be. We are always working to prepare them for as independent a life as possible. Many of the kids won’t ever live independently and will have support, but we are just trying to teach them.”

Over the years, the Independent Skills class has traveled to many places and learned lots of things, like how to clean up around a restaurant or how to keep a car wash in order, but the favorite of the students is unequivocally their trips to Zoo To You. 

“I have been coming out to Zoo To You with the class for four years now,” one of the students in the program, Dylan MacFarlane, explained. “Back when we first started we were helping them with mulching, but now mostly we pull weeds and use tools to help with the weeds and what not. It has changed a lot, they used to bring the animals to people all the time, but now it is more like a normal zoo, and it is just really pretty.”

For those that are unfamiliar with Zoo To You, it is a local zoo that is giving a voice to wildlife by providing a loving home for displaced, abused, abandoned, or permanently injured wild or exotic animals. Zoo To You makes a point to bring animal ambassadors to schools and other various events in an effort to educate all ages on the importance of conservation and inspire future generations to care about animals. Zoo To You is a nonprofit organization that is not open for the public but can be rented out, and with the peace of mind of knowing the money goes back into the animals. 

During their time at Zoo To You, the students will be divided up into teams and those that are more capable of complex tasks might end up with a fun job near or even in the monkey exhibit while others might sweep the common areas and spend some time with the parrots. 

“We are a community-based program, so we are always looking for new opportunities and places to volunteer, especially places that might be a little different and fun for the kids,” Smith revealed. “They were in need of some volunteers and they have been good to us. Our kids enjoy the unique experience and it allows the animal caretakers to spend some more time with the animals and less time dealing with landscaping or other peripheral things.”

While the students are obviously very excited to be at the zoo and working around the animals, those working at Zoo To You love their visits from their little helpers as well.

“When it was brought up, I know that the owners loved the idea because they want to have the community involved as much as possible and these guys — when they come out — are the best workers that we have,” Animal dietitian Tierra Loftus said. “They rake up everything and pull the weeds and always have this place looking great, and who wouldn’t want all these smiling faces out and about helping us.”

Once every couple visits, one of the animal caretakers will bring an animal out after the classes are done with their jobs, and the students will get to interact with animals they might never have had a chance to even see otherwise. Some students claimed the monkeys were their favorite and some loved the bear, but consensus seemed like the macaws were the favorite animal of the class. 

Zoo To You is also set to unveil a new, exciting exhibit for one of their newer residents, Edward Scissorhands, the sloth. After a few months of fundraising, the zoo has raised enough funds and officially broken ground on the new display, which should be open by the end of the month. 

“We got him about two months ago and they are very difficult to keep healthy,” Loftus said. “They have to have the right humidity in the environment. They also have to have a natural flora on them to be healthy. We are building that exhibit next to the macaw enclosure.”

For those interested in more information on Zoo To You or perhaps looking to rent out a tour, head to their website at