Justin Smith was never scared of snakes, but being unafraid doesn’t mean he’s unaware of their danger.
“I’m cautious around venomous snakes,” he said. But that hasn’t stopped him from handling them and hasn’t stopped him from learning all he can about them. Justin currently works as an animal keeper at the Okefenokee Swamp Park while he finishes up his degree in biological sciences from the College of Coastal Georgia.
“I’ve always been more into reptiles and snakes and alligators,” Justin said. “But I’ve always had a fascination with animals.
They’ve always interested me, and I’m glad I can work with them.”
Once he graduates, Justin said, he plans to move to Florida and hopes to work in a zoo or an animal sanctuary. To put it in plainly, Justin has a plan, and he’s sticking to it. But sticking to a plan doesn’t mean that plan has never changed.
In Justin’s case, his plans first began changing when he was introduced to vocational rehabilitation around 2015. At that time, he was living in Jefferson, a small town northwest of Athens, where his father was a principal at a local high school. It was through that local education system that Justin was first put in contact with Rebecca Williamson, his VR counselor.
When he first met Rebecca, Justin was working through an Associate’s degree in applied science and business administrative technology. After graduating, Justin worked with Rebecca to find a job, and soon, he began work at Baker and Taylor, a nationwide book distributor. After working there for several years, Justin followed his father to Blackshire, and that’s when his plans changed even more..
“I had been to the Okefenokee Swamp Park, only visiting, but I knew I liked it, and knew that I wanted to start volunteering there,” he said.
And that’s what he did.
Initially, his duties were limited to feeding the animals and cleaning their cages. After he proved adept at that, he was asked to assist the handlers with the animal demonstrations at the parks. It soon became clear that Justin was a valuable member of the team, and he was hired part time. Now, he acts as animal handler himself, giving visitors an up-close look at some of the creatures that call the swamp home.
On the whole, Justin said, he wouldn’t be where he is today without the support and assistance of both Rebecca and VR. Because now, he said, he has a plan, and he’s sticking to it.
“I’m excited about the future,” he said. “I know what I want to do, and that feels good.”