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One Step Away: Lending a helpful paw

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 started in 2009 when Rachel Cohen, a Penn student, came up with an idea that would 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 to 21 face a period of homelessness. Those aging out of foster care without a permanent placement face a daunting 25 percent 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 of their homes for revealing a sexual identity that caused controversy in the family. These youth are all considered "at risk." They are at risk of continued 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 United States 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 percent 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 so frequently all they can do is provide the minimum of care. That's where Hand2Paw comes in.

Hand2Paw's 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 weekly sessions, volunteers act as mentors, teaching the youth about animal welfare, animal handling, and animal health.   Hand2Paw's youth volunteers have provided well over 2,000 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. This includes 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.

The youth who come week after week and show the most interest are given an opportunity for a paid internship at an area shelter. 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 Hand2Paw's past participants have been hired by the animal shelters at the end of their internship experiences. Since the ultimate goal for the youth involved is to assist them with gaining their independence, the organization is 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 its graduates, Jerome and Cheryl.

"I felt as though I was making a strong connection with some of the people involved with Hand2Paw," says Jerome, who continued to return after that first fateful session. "What those animals have to endure and what I was going through were vastly similar." Jerome's consistent volunteering led Hand2Paw to sponsor an internship for him 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 understand what it was like working with people who had the same goal, which he saw was "to help and support the animals in the shelter as much as possible." Consistent with Hand2Paw's overall goals, the internship also taught him more about selflessness and accountability.

As Jerome summed up his experience, "I have definitely had problems holding down jobs before on more than one occasion. Hand2Paw helped me understand that what we were doing was more than a job. It taught me to take pride in my work and helped me develop consistency which I was sorely lacking in all aspects of my life." Now, Jerome says, "I care about something other than myself." He witnessed what the animals go through on a daily basis and the amount of support that the program was providing. "It 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, getting a career, and dying," says Jerome. "Life is about making a difference in the world in any way 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.

"The most important things that I received from the program were networking and building lasting relationships with the Hand2Paw mentors," says Cheryl. The employment she gained though Hand2Paw enabled Cheryl to be one of the first residents of JBJ Soul Homes. Amazingly, this young woman who once could not even look her Hands2Paw mentors in the eye, shared a poem about her mother and her journey out of homelessness on stage with Jon Bon Jovi, Sister Mary, the President of City Council, and other dignitaries.

Both Jerome and Cheryl are now living independently while working and attending college. Cheryl volunteers and engages in animal-related advocacy work and has moved on to work for Central Bark Doggie Day Care, acquiring an even higher level of skill and experience working with animals. Jerome aspires to work in sports broadcasting and Cheryl is thinking about a career in law to help animals and people. As Cheryl puts it, "Like all Covenant House residents, I, too, have a story that I did not want to create a sequel to."

Hand2Paw partners not only with Covenant House but also the Achieving Independence Center, which mentors youths aged 14 to 21 who have been in the foster care system and need help moving to independent living. Now mostly a volunteer organization, Hand2Paw hopes to grow so that it can hire permanent staff and expand its reach to homeless youth and animals in other cities.

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