A few years ago, Taj never expected to complete Year 10 – let alone Year 12.
“I didn’t go to school at all for two years,” he says of his difficulties in the mainstream education system.
However, it was Taj’s enrolment at Chapel School – an alternative high school operated by Youth Off The Streets – that reinvigorated his love of learning.
Immediately, he noticed a difference in the educational cultures of his current and former schools.
“It’s definitely better,” Taj explains. “Here, the teachers help you so much more, and you can actually have a conversation with them.”
Taj felt able to re-engage with his education after just two weeks at Chapel School.
A major reason was his involvement in the ASPIRE (Aboriginal Students Participating in Real Education) program, sponsored by RBC Capital Markets.
ASPIRE reconnects First Nations students with their culture and history, empowering them to reach their full potential.
Crystal Ferguson, a Student Support Youth Worker, is one of ASPIRE’s program facilitators.
“Watching Taj grow up from when I met him last year has been amazing,” she says.
“He’s really come out of his cocoon and turned into a beautiful butterfly.”
Taj bonded with Crystal as the two undertook weekly cultural learning activities. They got to know one another while visiting the Blue Mountains, cooking traditional meals and making clapping sticks and other Aboriginal tools.
Eventually, Crystal volunteered to drive Taj from Chapel School to Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo for work experience.
Helping Taj make the five-hour journey brought him closer to his life-long dream of becoming a zookeeper.
“The work experience was offered to me by my school,” Taj explains.
He says that, after completing a previous placement at Taronga Zoo Sydney, “they asked me to do it and I said yes”.
Taj was responsible for daily feeding and cleaning up after the animals, as well as checking the enclosures to ensure their needs were continually addressed. Chapel School covered his living expenses for the duration of the trip.
“I worked with all different animals, from kangaroos to elephants,” he remembers.
He laughs at the memory of being chased by an ostrich. During his time in Dubbo, though, Taj’s favourite activity was caring for the meerkats.
“Meerkats are just very cute and energetic. They’re just like Timon in The Lion King!”
Taj is also fond of his “really nice, friendly” supervisors, who briefed him every morning and extended his knowledge of animal welfare.
Crystal was impressed by the self-sufficiency Taj displayed while learning from his fellow zookeepers.
“Watching Taj go through the program was so inspiring,” Crystal says.
“He was working very long days, and still got up every morning to be there on time.”
“I think it reflects on how strong-willed Taj can be, when given the choice, and how kind and lovely he is as a person.”
Following his week in Dubbo, Taj was exhausted – but more committed to achieving his dreams than ever before.
To any other aspiring zookeeper considering whether to undertake work experience, Taj advises to “definitely do it”.
His self-confidence and practical skills have improved significantly. Now, Taj can’t wait to complete his third placement – which he secured with the assistance of Chapel School faculty members.
“Next year, I’ll be working at the Sydney Zoo for one day a week,” he says.
“That’s also when I’m studying Zoology at TAFE, so hopefully that’ll lead to more work.”
Taj is grateful to every Chapel School staff member and supporter who made his placement possible – especially Crystal.
The seven-day experience has made him feel incredibly prepared for his future career.
“Now, I know what to do at the zoo – and exactly what to expect when I walk in.”