Clad in a ballcap and fashionable tennis shoes, Vivianna Stewart breezed from the giraffe exhibit to the meerkats and then to the elephant enclosure, pausing between text messages on her phone to admire the animals before moving on to the next exhibit.
In many ways, Vivianna was like any 13-year-old on an outing with her brothers and her mother, Vicky Stewart.
Most teens, however, who visit the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo don’t use a motorized wheelchair to get around or rely on a constant feed of oxygen and a nurse, as Vivianna does.
But Thursday night was different.
It was Nursing and Therapy Services of Colorado night at the zoo. The NTSOC is a nonprofit founded in 2001 to provide home nursing and occupational therapy for children with severe disabilities. It also provides financial guidance for parents and pursues federal funding and grants for clients.
NTSOC children have a variety of medical and behavioral issues ranging from muscular dystrophy to multiple sclerosis to autism to Down syndrome and more.
So when NTSOC rents the zoo, it is filled with kids like Vivianna who use wheelchairs, crutches or walkers.
And the difference Thursday from the typical zoo crowded was vivid to Vivianna.
“On an average day here, it can be difficult,” Vivianna said as she looked around at the other children in wheelchairs, or walking with assistance of parents or crutches, and those on oxygen or ventilators.
“People walk around and they won’t let me through in my chair. It’s hard to get past people sometimes. And sometimes they stare at me. I ask them: ‘What is there to stare at?’ Then I ignore them.
“But on a night like tonight, you see people like me everywhere.”
That’s exactly the reaction Vicky was hoping for when she arranged the zoo night. Not only is Vicky the parent of a special-needs child, she is human resources director at NTSOC, located on West Woodmen Road near Peregrine neighborhood.
Her special relationship started seven years ago as she sought therapy services for Vivianna’s muscular dystrophy.
“Seeing what they did amazed me,” Vicky said. “When they had an opening, I took the job.”
Today she helps coordinate services for NTOC’s 500 clients and its staff of 300 or so certified nurses aides, nurses and therapists.
Vicky said it’s rare for many of the families to get a night out in public where they can relax and enjoy everything around them.
Places like the zoo typically mean long lines and crowds and staring eyes.
“We’ve found they don’t tend to have as good a time in places like the zoo when the general public is there,” Vicky said. “It’s hard to have wheelchairs there. Or deal with children with behavioral issues. But this way, they are surrounded by people who understand and they feel a little safer.”
That point was echoed by others Thursday including Lisa Dozier, who brought her family, including 14-year-old son Robbie, who also has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair.
“This is a great thing they do,” Lisa said of the NTSOC’s second annual zoo night. “It’s awesome. The kids get to take their time and see everything. And everybody understands.
“For the families, it’s relaxing. We don’t have to worry about anything or about the mainstream public.”
I wondered why the agency picked the zoo for its annual event.
“The connection between the children and the animals is special,” Vicky said. “Many of our children are non-verbal. But you will see some of them trying to speak when they get close the animals.”
The zoo provides a complete change of scenery for kids whose lives are typically limited due to disabilities.
“Children with behavioral issues tend to calm down around the animals and focus more,” Vicky said. “Others are so excited and happy. And that’s not typical for these kids, given what’s going on in their lives.”
Making the children happy drives many of the NTSOC staff, including nurse’s aide Ashley Wozniak, who patiently walked with Vivianna through the zoo.
“I like putting a smile on their faces,” Wozniak said. “Events like this make the kids happy and feel important. That’s why I do it. I want to make them happy.”
Like Wozniak, many of the NTSOC staff spend their free time with their clients.
Many NTSOC staffers were among the crowd enjoying the animals.
“Our staff is completely vested in this mission,” Vicky said. “They have special relationships with their clients.
“We are about the children and helping them to progress as far as possible or have some comfort in their lives. Our staff is completely bought into our mission. Many do things with the children on their own time for no pay.”
I know a few of the folks at NTSOC. In October 2012, I wrote about Jen Hanson, a nurse’s aide and case worker, and her husband, physical therapist Espen Hosoien, who also coaches soccer at Air Academy High School.
I told how they cared for their clients, including one client they’d met who is blind, quadriplegic, suffers frequent seizures and uses a wheelchair due to her cerebral palsy. I described how they had virtually adopted her as well as many other children they’d come to know at NTSOC.
Of course, Jen was there on Thursday, fist-bumping and high-fiving the kids and making sure everyone had a great time.
I consider Jen, Ashley, Vicky and ther others angels on Earth. Same for the people I’ve met in the hospice world.
In fact, we’re surrounded by people who care deeply and give completely of themselves. If you look around, I have no doubt you’ll find a few.
I was privileged to see them in action Thursday night. Thanks for all you do.