Potter Park Zoo's program for people with autism and other developmental disabilities held a sundown safari Sept. 28-29 where families had tours after hours, a campfire and the option to stay in tents.
"It's a zoo. It's a great place for families to be," said Mariah Martinez, community engagement coordinator for Potter Park Zoo.
This is the attitude that drives Potter Park to be inclusive through programs like Falconers, which is nearing its fifth year in existence. The zoo hosts special events for people with unique challenges and their families to enjoy for free every month.
Gloria Trevino-Sealy regularly brings her son Liam to Falconers and has participated since the beginning.
She said the program provided a social environment for Liam.
Liam learned about conservation and animal behavior from the program, which helped him become more responsible with his pets at home, said Trevino-Sealy.
Earlier this year, Potter Park became the first zoo in Michigan to be certified as sensory friendly by KultureCity. Trevino-Sealy said knowing that employees are educated about challenges facing their children is comforting.
Martinez said Potter Park is eager to help other zoos create similar programs and aims to set an example.
Falconers features hands-on activities and events where kids can do arts and crafts or pet animals like rabbits or ferrets.
"One thing I've learned, kids don't see rabbits, they don't go out and play in the woods anymore," said Katrina Jeffreys, who has been volunteering at Potter Park for over six years. "So, they're not exposed to rabbits and snakes and turtles and stuff, like back in the day in the day when we were kids."
Even with national recognition for the zoo's diversity programs, Martinez said Potter Park is exploring new ways to be inclusive. They plan to announce new partners in January 2020.
"(It's) not just 'Come to the zoo for this program and keep to yourself,'" Trevino-Sealy said. "It's 'Come to the zoo for this program and make some friends.'"