When children in foster care systems turn 18, they “age out.” As legal adults they are sent out on their own, but for many that means facing the world without a proper support system, education, or employable skills. In Philadelphia, half of the youth in foster care leave the system without a high school diploma, and a quarter have nowhere to live. Rachel Cohen, a 20-year-old University of Pennsylvania biology major, saw the parallels between these kids and the 15,000 stray animals that are euthanized in local shelters every year, and started Hand2Paw with the aim of building a bridge between homeless youth and animals, providing work skills for the former while the latter get the training and attention they desperately need to make them adoptable.
Cohen came up with the idea for Hand2Paw while she was volunteering with the welfare society in Philadelphia. In the course of that work, she began talking to a group of homeless youth living under one of the city’s bridges. She noticed that many of the kids had dogs, and that their connection with their pups was so strong the teens chose to sleep on the street rather than in a warm bed in a shelter, where animals aren’t allowed. “I figured maybe there’s something I can do for these kids beyond chatting with them,” Cohen says. She wanted to help empower the youth to change their lives. Through a DoSomething.org grant and a 2011 National Students in Service award, Cohen started Hand2Paw in March 2010.
Hand2Paw’s volunteers, selected based on a belief that they will be compassionate with the shelter animals, come from two Philadelphia-based shelters — Covenant House PA and Project H.O.M.E. Twice a week, five to eight teenagers and a trainer hop into a van, where the competition for seats is tight. “In our ‘Cov Cares’ volunteer initiative, this is by far our most popular community service project,” says Maureen McElaney, Covenant House PA’s communications manager. The group heads to one of two Philadelphia shelters, where the kids spend two hours helping both the dogs and shelter staff.
They work with the dogs on barrier training, designed to make the strays more adoptable by teaching them, through positive reinforcement, to greet people enthusiastically and come to the front of their cages when approached. The volunteers also teach the pups simple tricks such as sit and lie down, as well as bathe and walk them.
The kids lend a hand in keeping the shelter clean and sanitary by mopping floors, doing dishes and laundry, and cleaning and sanitizing cages. Along the way, they gain job skills, experience working in a professional environment, and — most importantly, perhaps — a boost to their self-esteem.
The volunteers also get a chance to make a real difference in the lives of the animals they care for. One dog the kids worked with would lie on the ground, refusing to move, whenever someone tried to take her out of her cage. “Several Hand2Paw youth worked with her, coaxing her with cheese and treats to interact and walk on the leash,” Cohen recounts. “Later, they even got her working on basic commands.” The dog is now up for adoption.. “Seeing that something you’re doing is having an impact is really empowering for these kids. A lot of them haven’t had many empowering experiences in their lives.”
Program participants who show exceptional motivation and compassion in their volunteer work are offered internships, both paid and unpaid, that focus on specialized areas within a shelter, such as dog training, grooming, and assisting in the vet or surgical clinic. One young man who took part in the internship program now has a full-time job working in a pet boutique, says Hugh Organ, associate executive director of Covenant House.
The pairing between homeless youth and stray dogs also provides an emotional benefit for both groups. “The kids get love from these animals unconditionally, which a lot of them haven’t had that in a long time,” says Organ. The dogs on the other hand, benefit from the positive interactions by coming out of their shell, which helps make them more adoptable, and more likely to find a permanent home. The staff at the shelters has benefited as well, Cohen says, not just from the extra hands but also by seeing homeless kids in their city in a more positive light.
Hand2Paw has doubled in just a year. It started working with kids from a single shelter every month, and now work with two animal shelters and two homeless organizations, holding sessions twice a week. There are plans to expand to New York City this summer. “People have reached out to me from all over the world,” Cohen, who will be a senior this fall at UPenn, says. “There’s a huge potential for us to grow.”
Images: Bridget Pizzo and Ashley Smith