Bright Idea: Bring Animals and At-risk Youth Together, and Everyone Wins

Photograph of a teen girl holding a small dog.

There’s often a special connection between animals and their caretakers. Penny Ellison, who directs the Hand2Paw Foundation in Philadelphia, sees it every day. Hand2Paw empowers young adults from Covenant House Pennsylvania to volunteer in local animal shelters and help care for homeless pets.

Young people help feed the animals, exercise dogs, and stock food and water. Ellison says, “I’ve seen big guys, who say they don’t like cats, melt when they feed the baby kittens.”

Youth from Covenant House feel a certain kinship with the animals, because they too are homeless, she says, and harnessing that special bond can benefit both the young people and the animals they care for. Youth gain skills and build their resumes. Animals may be more likely to be adopted into a loving home. And both find companionship in the deal.

Youth Gain Skills and Build Employability

While young people really enjoy feeding and playing with the animals, they’re also gaining experience and skills that will help them when it’s time to find a job. Employers like to see real experience on a resume, Ellison says, and through the program, youth learn skills like animal grooming and basic obedience training. They also accrue “soft skills,” like trustworthiness and reliability.

Some young people from the program also promote humane education in the community. They go to schools and teach other young people about animal health and proper pet care. Youth get to demonstrate what they’re learning and practice speaking in front of a group. The experience also gives them a chance to give back, Ellison says.

Some youth even go on to internships at the animal shelter and a career path working with animals.

Animals Are More Adoptable

The animals are mostly happy to have more people around to give them attention, Ellison says. But they're getting more than a fun play date. Animals that are exercised regularly have better health, and those that play and interact with more people become better socialized. Animal shelter staff know that being healthy and more social makes animals more adoptable. And getting animals adopted into loving homes is, of course, the ultimate goal for the animal shelter.

Ellison says that volunteers from a youth organization are very appealing to animal shelters because the young people come in at a scheduled date and time--which makes them more reliable than an average volunteer. She recommends youth programs interested in starting a similar program contact their local animal shelter’s executive director or volunteer coordinator. Animal shelters love to hear, “On this day, I will have half a dozen volunteers ready to do the tasks you need,” she says.

For more information about starting a collaboration between a youth program and an animal shelter, read Bring Hand2Paw To My Town, or contact Ellison through the Hand2Paw contact page.

Read about a Portland runaway and homeless youth program's doggy daycare and research on using dogs to help girls deal with trauma.

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