LANSING, Mich. —- Once a month, Potter Park Zoo in Lansing, Michigan, dedicates a night to a special free event: the FALCONERS event. Since 2016, this program has catered towards families with special needs children, and adults, along with their families and support systems. Events like these allow guests to experience the zoo in a safe and supportive environment they may not be able to find on a regular day. And on Sept. 24, the zoo celebrated their fourth annual Sensory-Friendly Dinner.
Volunteer Krys Grabarek’s journey with the Falconers is a personal one. “I have a goddaughter who has autism, and the zoo is her favorite place. All of her clothes are zoo-related, and she buys them here,” Grabarek said. “I would always say when I retired, I’d work here.” Grabarek fulfilled that dream when she was hired as a volunteer in 2019.
Grabarek takes on many roles as a volunteer, but she is most fond of the ones where she gets to interact with the guests, often teaching them about conservation efforts. “Most people do not understand when these animals become endangered, it is a very serious thing,” Grabarek said.
And for families like Deb and Emily Blake, the FALCONERS Event is nothing new. Their child Emily, who has special needs, has attended these events since they started.
“We try and come most months. It is just nice to get out and see all of the animals,” Deb Blake shared.
Emily struggles with sensory overload, and her symptoms usually present around loud noises, confined spaces and large groups of people. The FALCONERS Event allows Emily and her family to enjoy the zoo without as many complications.
“We see other families with special needs,” Blake said, adding that they ran into one of Emily’s long-time friends during their visit.
Amanda, Mason, and Emily Calveneau have also attended FALCONERS events since moving to Lansing.
“Accessibility, that is one of the biggest things, being able to walk around, Amanda Calveneau said.” “They are repaving everything at the zoo right now, which is really nice, but before this repavement, it was pretty bumpy and rough.”
“These events really allow us to interact with other families that are in the same position we are with two special needs kids,” Amanda Calveneau said.
Mariah Martinez, event coordinator for the Potter Park Zoo, handles all of the major operations for the Falconers events. About 160 meals were provided for FALCONER families in attendance.
“We do these dinner events because families told us that it is really hard to go to restaurants without all the sensory overload or even the judgments if their child needed a moment,” Martinez said. “It has been really nice to give them that restaurant feel… and enjoy it with the people that their community as well as their families.”
These events are inclusive to all and are a lifeline for families with unique struggles. “We are very open to anyone with any ability,” Martinez shares. “I think it just brings in different people from different backgrounds, which just right there brings in inclusivity, and it gives them a time and a space that they feel included in at the zoo.”
The next FALCONERS event is the “Sensory-Friendly Boo at the Zoo” on Oct. 20. Parents and adults interested in the event can find more information and register for free at potterparkzoo.org/falconers/.