Spiders, salamanders, even cockroaches. Thaddeus Bennett has no problem reaching into a crate full of these creatures and holding one in his hand.
“Cockroaches have these little things on the back of their body called cerci that check for changes in temperature and pressure,” Bennett says as he picks a Madagascar hissing cockroach out of a plastic container filled with mulch and scattered pieces of sliced carrots. “When you walk near a door, before you even open it, they can feel you coming.”
The Madagascar hissing cockroach is just one of a dozen different species of creatures Bennett keeps housed on a pushcart filled with plastic cages at the SEEDS – South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces – warehouse. Bennett has been a youth educator with the organization since 2005. For the past ten years, he’s led a program called Animals of the Garden.
“It teaches kids about the value of creatures that most people are afraid of in the garden,” he says. “It teaches them about what these animals do and why they’re not as dangerous as people think. Lots of kids don’t even know, for example, what a salamander is.”
Bennett brings his pushcart filled with spiders, salamanders and cockroaches to work with the seedlings, the afterschool children’s program, and to local elementary school classrooms.
“Thaddeus teaches us all about the different animals,” said 7-year old Sender Martinez. The second grader comes to SEEDS after school four days a week.
He said the hands-on learning experience helped Martinez face his fears.
“He’s our main animal holder, he picks up any animal we have here. When I started with him last spring, he was scared of everything. It’s really neat to see the kids grow and see what they’ve learned,” Bennett said.
Before arriving at SEEDS, Bennett worked for 15 years at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science in Durham.
“I was teaching kids about really important North Carolina animals. The information excited the kids and it excited me too because I was learning new things,” he said. “Leaving the museum was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
Bennett said his talents were needed elsewhere.
“The museum, a lot of times, reached really wealthy kids. I wanted to come to a place where I could work with kids who didn’t have those same kinds of opportunities,” he said.
Over the past 10 years, Bennett has worked to make resources accessible to everyone who comes through the front doors of SEEDS. Take Latasha McMillan for example – after Bennett met her at a job fair, he made sure to find her a spot working at SEEDS.
“Mr. Thad is the reason I came to SEEDS. I can’t express how thankful I am for all that he’s done for me and so many other students that have come here,” McMillan said. The 23-year-old has been with the organization for almost 10 years.
Bennett has been with the organization longer than any existing employee. Though he has seen the program grow tremendously over the years, Bennett said there is still a lot of work to be done in improving recruitment.
“This is a very rare place. There is so much happening here that a lot of people in the direct neighborhood don’t know about. I wish I could get the people who live here, right across the street, to get their kids involved,” he said.
Unlike the largely African-American community that lives in the area, the majority of the staff at SEEDS is white, which Bennett says may dissuade some families from sending their children to the afterschool programs.
“Some neighbors won’t check out what’s going on here and if they did, they would see that this is a safe place for kids to be afterschool where they can learn so much.”
In addition to Animals of the Garden, Bennett leads a variety of afterschool and summer activities, including martial arts and dance classes.
“I was a founding member of a company called the African American Dance Ensemble. I danced with them for seven years and then I was a male dancer for hire for a while,” he says. “But it wasn’t giving me what I wanted in terms of making a living.”
Bennett’s stint in dance preceded his time with the Museum of Life and Science. Though his change in career may seem extreme, Bennett thinks dancing has a lot in common with educating kids.
“Teaching these kids is like dancing,” he explains. “Even though I know I can go into a class and a do a pretty good job, I make sure the night before I rehearse. I’ll rehearse as if I had an audience in here.”
For Bennett, working with the kids at SEEDS beats any standing ovation.
“I’ve always wanted to work with kids and teach them about the things I know,” he says.
“I get to do all this right here at SEEDS. Most days I come in here and I am really, really happy.”
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