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18-Year-Old Autistic Zoo Volunteer Defies Odds

(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Joel Thomas
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FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) - Joel Arnold is helping set up for an event at the Fort Worth Zoo.

“Big muscles,” he grunts as he lifts an office chair over his head to reposition it around long tables set up for a weekend birthday party for children in the zoo school.

As a child, doctors told Joel’s parents he would likely never talk or even sit up unless massive brain seizures could be stopped and the odds were only about 30 percent sure the medicine needed would be effective. But his medication worked.  Then came a different diagnosis years later when Joel was six years old.

“He was diagnosed as severely autistic,” said his mother Patsy Arnold.  “And, we were not given very much hope for him and we just kept working.”

That work — and Joel’s improvement — all took place at home.  Three years ago, one of his case workers said it might be time Joel learned to deal with the outside world.

“And she said, ‘I see this interest in animals, I wonder if we can find him a volunteer position somewhere’,” Joel’s mother recalled.

And now he’s a volunteer at The Fort Worth Zoo.

“We’ve got gorillas, flamingos and elephants,” Joel ticked off the animals as he walked toward his favorite exhibit, the zebras.

As we walk with Joel, it’s hard to imagine he would hardly even speak to people when he started here three years ago. The excitement and knowledge of the animals and the zoo employees spilled out of him.

The zoo changed him.

“It feels like you’re going somewhere where no kid has ever gone before,” Joel said about venturing into the zoo on his volunteer days.

Joel became eager to improve and to impress his new zoo friends with whom he worked.

“I walked off in the wrong direction when they sent me back into zoo and I felt terrible,” Joel remembered.  “And I mean, I just failed.  I didn’t follow directions.”

But Joel got a second chance to get it right.

“That’s right,” Joel smiled.  “Because God wants me to get a second chance even if we make mistakes.”

Joel often spends time with groups of young children touring the zoo or coming out for zoo camps.  Zoo staff members say he has a calming effect on children who become upset and is a favorite for his entertaining puppet shows and his ability to mimic most of the animal noises at the zoo.

“Being out here at the zoo is like being out here at school because you’re working with kids and that’s what I usually do,” Joel said.

“The people he gets to work with, the children, just love having him around,” said Joel’s father. “He likes to play with puppets and he’ll do puppet stories for the kids who come to the zoo school.

“He really has a presence here and his own identity and it’s just been fabulous to watch him grow that self-identity outside of our family.”

“We are so thankful for what has happened here for Joel,” said Patsy Arnold. “Three and a half years ago we weren’t sure he’d ever be employable and now we feel sure he has some job skills.”

“It instills so much pride in him that when he introduces himself to someone the first time he gives his name first and the second thing out of his mouth is, I’m a volunteer at the Fort Worth Zoo,” Dough Arnold laughed.

And now everyone at the zoo knows the volunteer who defied the odds.

“Awww yeah!” Joel laughed exuberantly. “They all know pretty much about me. I’m awesome at this!”

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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