Before volunteering for the program, teacher Colleen Rossi at Osage Elementary School in Voorhees Township didn’t have any affinity for elephants. As a teacher, she cared for students and other living things, but elephants were just another animal in the world.
That is, before she was chosen as the distance learning teacher at Osage approximately two decades ago.
“It became my passion,” said Rossi, a native of Shamong.
Back in 1998 when computers were being introduced to her school, as well as select classrooms across the country, Rossi volunteered to have her classroom be a test classroom that would seek to bring world topics and works into the classroom via computer technology.
Rossi used software on the computers to connect with numerous nonprofits and museums across the country to teach students in her classroom about a variety of topics. Over time, some organizations ceased to use the software and stopped reaching out.
However, 20 years later, Rossi still teaches and supports the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., a nonprofit on over 2,700 acres of land that provides individualized care to elephants that have been rescued from zoos and circuses.
The nonprofit has strict rules regarding the care for its elephants, such as only having female elephants due to differences in care, while not allowing visitors on the grounds where the elephants roam.
However, the public is able to view the elephants via 13 cameras set up throughout the site at www.elephants.com.
Over the years, Rossi has continued to read up and learn about the stories of the elephants that have been rescued by coming to the sanctuary, with pasts in zoos and circuses, having been ripped from their families at varying ages and forced to perform for entertainment. After arriving at the sanctuary, the Asian and African elephants are able to live happier lives and form bonds with the other elephants to create herds in a wild habitat.
Recently, after 20 years of working with the nonprofit and educating her students about the sanctuary and its work, Rossi was honored as an ambassador and special volunteer by the organization for her years of support.
Through the spotlight, the sanctuary opened up for the first time to the public to allow supporters to work with the sanctuary to help – something that got Rossi quite excited.
“I kind of had this feeling inside,” Rossi said. “It took about a month and then I got the email that I was accepted. And as soon as I stepped foot on the sanctuary… I just burst into tears.”
Rossi was one of eight volunteers allowed to assist the sanctuary in varying ways. While at the sanctuary, Rossi cut bamboo, helped make treats for the elephants, pulled vines to clean the fences and more.
Fortunately for Rossi, she was able to see a few of the elephants during her time there while they roamed.
“I feel like I’m spreading the message one student at a time,” Rossi said. “I’m able to spread the message about, not only about zoos and circuses, but also about habitat loss in Asia. I feel passionate that we have to educate the next generation about what we should do to help other species.”
Elephants, known as a keystone species, would have a ripple effect on the environment if they disappeared from the planet. Rossi hopes to educate more individuals on the elephant sanctuary and the domino effect that the extinction of a single species, such as elephants, could have on the world.
“I might not be able to send the sanctuary thousands of dollars, but I can at least teach my students about the plight of elephants on our planet and about the good that that the sanctuary does,” she said.
The Elephant Sanctuary has various ways of allowing interested people to support the nonprofit, via donations and the ability to run a fundraiser or adopt an elephant. Learn more at www.elephants.com.