A Place for All
Dawn Bellerose grew up in an outdoorsy family.
Her childhood home in Long Island, New York
was something of a miniature farm, replete
with a vegetable garden, pet chickens, rabbits
and goats. She grew up fishing, swimming
and camping before becoming a park ranger
at several state and national parks, including
Everglades National Park.
Dawn’s five-year-old daughter, Olivia, has
Down syndrome, which makes it difficult for
her to regulate her body temperature outside.
“Keeping her in a shaded area during the hotter
months is essential,” Dawn said. The Zoo’s
inclusion coordinator, Lindsay Mathisen, added
that families of children with special needs are
often challenged by what to expect from
outdoor experiences. Insects, weather and the
general unpredictability of nature can trigger
difficult-to-manage behaviors and aggravate
When the Zoo’s Exceptional Nature Space (ENS)
was preparing to open the Down Syndrome
Association of Brevard reached out to Dawn
to see if her family would be interested in
“testing it out” and they obliged.
This enclosed natural area, which opened in
May 2017, is located behind the scenes and is
a safe, fun and stimulating space for children
of special needs. It is ideal for children with
temperature-regulation challenges like Olivia.
Since its debut, over 500 individuals have
participated in programs inside the ENS,
including monthly meetups, community group
sessions and school programs. Children engage
in open-ended nature play, socialize with others,
learn by doing and experiment in an authentic
“Just like me, Olivia loves being outside,” Dawn
said. “She enjoys any activity where she can get
dirty or play in the water.” Through the ENS,
Dawn and Olivia are able to get out into nature
regularly, play with paint, bang on drums,
discover new species and much more.
Now regulars to the ENS, the Bellerose family
have participated in several other Zoo offerings
like Family Nature Club and sensory-friendly
“When Olivia thinks
of the Zoo, she doesn’t think
about the giraffe or monkeys;
she thinks of the Exceptional