by Penny Ellison
Ed. Note: I guess I am stretching for a local angle here, but this story was brought to our attention by Norman Ragsdale, who was formerly homeless but now lives in a room in Germantown, does handyman jobs in Northwest Philly and can often be found selling “One Step Away, Greater Philadelphia’s first newspaper produced by those without homes for those with homes,” in front of Kilian’s hardware store or Weavers Way in Chestnut Hill.
In 2013, things weren’t going so well for Jerome. He had been in and out of homelessness for about two years. He was living at Covenant House’s Rites of Passage facility in Kensington but having trouble keeping a job. Looking for direction and to make some connection, Jerome attended a Hand2Paw volunteer session and never looked back. The experience delivered the direction and connection he was seeking and changed his life.
Hand2Paw came into being in 2009 when Rachel Cohen, a Penn student, came up with a novel idea to connect two underserved groups – homeless teenagers (who frequently are seen on the streets clinging to their pets) and shelter animals, desperately in need of more care and attention than shelters have the staff to provide.
Each year, over two million young people ages 18-21 face a period of homelessness. Those aging out of foster care without a permanent placement face a daunting 25% risk of homelessness. Many of the youth who participate in Hand2Paw ended up at the shelter because they aged out of the foster care system without ever being adopted or placed in any type of permanent, stable situation. Others fled abusive homes. Still others were kicked out by their families for revealing a sexual identity that caused controversy in the family. These youth are all considered “at risk.” They are at risk of homelessness, unemployment, unplanned pregnancies and just falling through the cracks.
At the same time, the number of homeless pets is astonishing. Six to eight million animals enter shelters in the U.S. each year, and only about half make it out alive. The Philadelphia animal control shelter takes in about 30,000 animals every year, with about a 70% live release rate, so roughly 9,000 animals are euthanized each year in just that one shelter.
In addition, dog fighting is prevalent in many cities and Philadelphia is no exception. The victims of cruelty and fighting are brought to shelters to recover and hopefully get a second chance. Most animal shelters are run entirely with charitable dollars or limited municipal funding, and it is frequently all they can do to provide the minimum of care. That’s where Hand2Paw comes in.
Hand2Paw’s novel program empowers at risk and homeless youth through working with shelter animals. The program has essentially three aspects: volunteering, internships and assistance with job placement. At the weekly volunteer sessions, volunteers act as mentors, teaching the youth about animal welfare, animal handling and animal health.
Hand2Paw’s youth volunteers have provided well over 2000 hours of care, training, and socialization to thousands of Philadelphia’s shelter animals, helping to ensure that the animals remain stimulated, happy and behaviorally sound as they await their adoptive homes. In addition to the hands-on training and cuddling of animals, Hand2Paw volunteers do meaningful humane education including talking about how the animals end up in the shelter, what to do if they witness cruelty and the importance of spaying and neutering.
Many people are afraid to set foot in an urban animal shelter, but Hand2Paw volunteer sessions are full of joy and laughter. Instead of lecturing teens from a distance, the volunteers interact with them on an individual basis, get to know them on a personal level and give them a break in what can otherwise be a difficult life, for both the human and the animal participants.
The youth who come week after week and show the most interest are given an opportunity for a paid internship at an area shelter, an opportunity that benefits both the youth and the animals. Hand2Paw interns have worked at many different facilities including Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia (the city animal control shelter), the Pennsylvania SPCA, Philly PAWS, Street Tails Animal Rescue and Saved Me rescue. The interns assist the kennel attendants and animal handlers and get important job experience. Some have helped draft biographies for shelter animals based on their own interactions with them, improving the animal’s chances of connecting with the right adopter while developing their own writing and professional skills.
Hand2Paw also provides continuous job coaching, mentoring and connections with businesses to assist our interns in finding employment opportunities. In fact, several of our youth have been hired by the animal shelters at the end of their internship experiences. Since the ultimate goal for our youth is to assist them with gaining their independence, we are especially proud that employment gained through Hand2Paw has recently led to housing opportunities in the new JBJ Soul Homes project in Philadelphia for two of our graduates, Jerome and Cheryl.
After that first fateful session, Jerome continued to come back because, as he says, “I felt as though I was making a strong connection with some of the people involved with Hand2Paw.” He also wanted to give some of his time to the animals because he saw that “what those animals have to endure and what I was going through were vastly similar.”
After volunteering consistently, Hand2Paw sponsored an internship for Jerome to work at the Pennsylvania SPCA. It was not always smooth sailing but Hand2Paw worked with him and he felt the support of his coworkers. The internship helped him to understand what it was like working with people who had the same goal, which he saw as “to help and support the animals in the shelter as much as possible.”
Seeing what the animals go through on a daily basis and the amount of support that the program was providing “really opened my eyes and helped me understand that you have a purpose in life. Life isn’t just about getting a job going to college paying bills get a career and die. Life is about making a difference in the world in anyway possible and leaving a positive stamp on this world.”
The Pennsylvania SPCA ultimately hired Jerome as an employee, and his story was told in a film entitled “Heel’d” featuring the work of Hand2Paw and produced by Villanova’s Social Justice Documentary Project. “Heel’d” was a finalist in the national Student Academy Awards Competition.
Cheryl, also a Covenant House resident, had a similar experience. Although she was quiet and shy at first, she kept coming back to volunteer because she wanted to “develop a relationship with the shelter animals to show them that they too can overcome hurt and despair like I have.” Through her involvement with and commitment to Hand2Paw, she was able to obtain employment at PAWS Wellness Clinic, where she tended to the needs of both shelter animals and animals served by their low cost clinic.
Penny Ellison is Executive Director of Hand2Paw and teaches Animal Law and Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. You can learn more about supporting Hand2Paw by visiting www.hand2paw.org.
* This article is reprinted, with permission, from “One Step Away.” For more information, visit www.osaphilly.org.