Grove City girl named ambassador for bears

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 Photo courtesy of the Columbus Zoo
 Grove City resident Elaina Wahl will represent the Columbus Zoo as a polar bear ambassador after winning a competition. Wahl will now get to travel to Canada to get an up close look at the threatened bears.

Just one week after the polar bear was listed as "threatened" by the Endangered Species Act, a Bishop Ready High School sophomore from Grove City has been chosen to be a polar bear ambassador, representing the Columbus Zoo.

Elaina Wahl, who has 150 volunteer hours in three years at the zoo, emerged as the winner in a competition that included writing an essay, letters of recommendation and an interview. The 16-year-old was nearly speechless May 27 when the surprise announcement was made at a sophomore assembly in front of her classmates.

"Thank you so much," said a surprised Wahl as she hugged zoo officials she works with during her volunteer service. "I don’t know what to say."

She was surrounded by her family and zoo officials who presented her with a stuffed polar bear and certificate.

As ambassador, she will be one of 14 young people going to a polar bear camp during the bears’ migration period in October at Churchill, Canada, in the Arctic region.

"She will spend that week in a tundra buggy with 13 other young people studying polar bears," said Nancy Hampson, director of education for the Columbus Zoo.

This is the second year that the Columbus Zoo has worked with Polar Bear International on this project, but the first time the zoo has been able to put together a program to select an ambassador, said Barbara Revard, director of program planning at the Zoo.

During her arctic week, Wahl will also be flying in a helicopter looking for polar bears, and "if she is lucky, will be able to go inside a bear’s den," Revard said.

When she returns from her fall experience, she will be talking to the community, Revard explained.

Students who participate in the program are encouraged to become involved in some kind of community service project.

"She needs a team to work on that community activity," Revard explained.

The team formed to work with her can register their project and compete at several levels with the national winner going to Sea World in San Diego.

"No one does anything alone," Bishop Ready Principal Celene Seeman told the sophomores who had gathered for an assembly in the auditorium as she urged Wahl’s classmates to support her. "She’ll be just a little nervous when the time comes to go on this trip."

About that time two young men in the audience stood and started clapping and the rest of the estimated 150 students followed.

"I hope I can come back and be a leader," Wahl said. "This is a big honor."

The same sentiment was echoed by her father Rob as he spoke about his oldest of five children.

"She loves animals and she wants to make a difference," he said.

The announcement was a surprise to Elaina, although her parents had learned of the planned announcement the Friday before, said her mother Lisa.

"Danielle (Ross, program manager in the education department at the zoo) had called me Friday and told me about it and urged me to keep it a secret," Lisa said.

"She was telling relatives all weekend that she had applied for the position and was wondering how she would be notified where she came out in the competition," Lisa said. "She was surprised."

Lisa also said her daughter knew that she was among the top five finalists.

Wahl said she thought the interview would be the hardest part, but she said that was easy compared to the essay she had to write.

"We had to pick an issue in the community and look for a way to solve the problem," she explained.

The topic she chose was recycling and her focus was to get people to know about recycle opportunities and how they can participate.

"I’m so glad for her," her mother said. "She worked so hard on that project, doing a lot of research on polar bears and reading as many articles as she could find."

In her volunteer work at the zoo, Wahl cleans the dishes the animals eat from, cleans the windows, and works on enrichment projects. That she described as "putting a treat in a box so the bear can try to figure out how to get inside the box and get the treat."

The week-long trip is financed by Polar Bear International. Two other students from Ohio – Toledo and Cincinnati – have also been chosen to participate in this project.

Wahl’s brother Jonas, 13, will soon be following his sister because he will begin his volunteer service at the Columbus Zoo this summer.

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