Martha Walters gently opened the kennel holding two cats, Bob Meowrly and Pawdrey Hepburn.
It was time for what the Humane Society for Southwest Washington calls enrichment. That general term that includes providing cats with a little cuddling, love and affection.
“They are de-stressers,” said Walters, a Vancouver resident who has volunteered at the Humane Society for the past three years, as she cradled a tabby with a towel. “I come here, and I am never stressed.”
Working in the Humane Society’s cattery brings Walters into close contact with dozens of adorable felines. She would love to adopt one — or all of them — but she said her own tabby at home is “a little cat reactive.”
Walters is one of 800 active adult and teen volunteers at the Humane Society. They donate their time, love and empathy to animals needing good homes.
Volunteers are on duty seven days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. They take photos of pets available for adoption, assist in the shelter’s clinic and laundry, bring dogs and cats into their homes as temporary foster parents, work in the ReTails Thrift Store, sew blankets and pads for animals, and provide enrichment to make a stressful situation a little more bearable for 8,000 animals a year.
“I always say we couldn’t open the door every day if we didn’t have volunteers,” said Stacey Graham, Humane Society president.
Volunteers come from different backgrounds and age groups. They share a love for animals, the pixie dust that attracts volunteers and keeps them coming back.
“They are pretty amazing people,” said Tara Taylor, Humane Society volunteer manager. “I think we are incredibly fortunate that they found us and stayed with us.”
As of Nov. 21, volunteers had donated 89,800 hours of service at the Humane Society during 2019. Volunteers include 97 people who have logged more than 1,000 hours.
Longtime volunteers, who have spent years pitching in, have donated more than 5,000 hours. If a volunteer worked 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, it would take nearly 2.5 years to reach 5,000 hours.
The Humane Society has worked to break down barriers between its 96 full-time and part-time employees and its much larger cohort of volunteers so everyone feels like they are part of one team, Graham said.
“They are just good people,” Taylor said about the volunteers. “They enrich the organization.”
“And the animals,” Graham added.
The organization’s volunteer program is receiving recognition for its accomplishments.
Best Friends Animal Society worked with Points of Light and selected 10 shelters to coach and mentor through certification.
Certification means the organization has documented its capability and expertise to strategically use volunteers and is among the top 11 percent of nonprofits nationwide for volunteer management and organizational performance.
To be certified, the Humane Society had to document it met 75 percent of standards, or best practices, in 10 categories, such as planning and development, training, onboarding and supervision, and tracking and evaluation.
Task forces and committees were formed to work through the process, and the Humane Society made sure to have volunteers on all of them.
The organization had to provide detailed documentation, or evidence, to demonstrate compliance.
“This was a time-consuming process,” Graham said. “It took us almost two years.”
For Cheri Martin, the Humane Society’s director of shared services, one aspect of the experience was particularly rewarding.
“They asked us if they could use our evidence to share with other shelters,” Martin said.
50,000 dog walks
The Humane Society has a detailed program for volunteers that includes orientation, training and one-on-one mentoring.
The shelter provides more than 50,000 dog walks a year — 95 percent of them by volunteers, Graham said. Banfield Pet Hospital employees rerouted the paths behind the shelter, she said, to improve the experience for walkers and dogs.
Adult volunteers must be at least 18, willing to make a six-month commitment to volunteer two hours a week, and complete all required training prior to starting.
“Some will work one shift a week for two hours,” Taylor said. “Some will be here five days a week.”
Teenagers 14 to 17 can volunteer if they commit to working a two-hour shift a week for four months. Teen volunteers must be willing and able to clean kennels, pick up animal waste and do laundry, understand detailed protocols, and follow shelter rules.
Beginning this week, the Humane Society will accept applications for teen volunteers to work in the shelter’s cattery from mid-January through late May. Twelve positions are available. Teenagers can fill out an application that will be posted on the volunteer section of the Humane Society’s website: southwesthumane.org/engage/volunteer.
There are duties that most volunteers are not thrilled with doing.
“We just address it straight on during orientation,” Taylor said. ” ‘OK, how many of you are here to clean?’ ”
“No one raises their hand,” Graham said.
Some icky work is done by a crew from Larch Corrections Center, five offenders and one custody officer, that comes in from 7 a.m. to noon to clean dog kennels.
The organization wants volunteers to enjoy their experience, not get stuck doing something they don’t like doing.
“Most of them want to work with the animals,” Martin said.
“If it’s not right for them, it’s not right for us,” Taylor said.
Volunteers at work
Alvin Carlson, who has volunteered at the Humane Society’s clinic for five years, served as an Army medic. On this day, he was caring for a dog that had just been neutered.
Meanwhile, Karen Hansen, a Woodland resident who has been volunteering for four years, helped two other volunteers, Jennifer Schiller of Camas and Janet Richardson of Vancouver, care for a group of young dogs, possibly all from the same litter, so the dogs didn’t spend all day in a kennel.
“I like enrichment, just watching them play,” Hansen said from a small outdoor enclosure behind the shelter. “I love the dogs, and I like this place. And I think they do a good job here.”
Taylor said the work is beneficial, for the dogs and the volunteers.
“Even if you’re having a bad day, you can come out and be with the dogs,” the volunteer manager said. “It gives you a whole different perspective.”
Back inside the shelter, Rita Ryerson of Vancouver, recognized as a “cat savant,” went into a small glass-enclosed room to spend some time with Abby.
Ryerson said she always has had cats, including 16 at one time when she lived in Maryland.
“This is just the place to be,” she said about the animal shelter. “I was looking for something productive to do, something fun to do.”
Ryerson said she has volunteered at the Humane Society for four years and is scheduled for two days a week, but sometimes comes in for more.
“My car only goes to Fred Meyer and the Humane Society,” she said.