By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
DEARBORN – Whether raising money or awareness, walking dogs or cuddling cats, Friends For the Dearborn Animal Shelter volunteers find ways to help more than 2,500 adoptable animals annually find new homes.
When harpist Rebecca Newbrey of Lincoln Park started volunteering at the shelter twice a week in June 2012, she discovered her melodic music had a soothing effect on most of the animals she visited.
“It’s a matter of finding their resonance,” Newbrey said. “Everything has a frequency they like to vibrate at, and with animals it tends to be things in the key of G, or G minor. You just find what mood they’re in, and you match it, and then you bring it down lower and lower and get them to settle.”
While she looks forward to her semi-weekly visits and discovering which animals have been adopted, Newbrey said the best part is making a connection with an animal who may have been upset before she started playing.
“I make eye contact with them and I see them settling down and calming down,” Newbrey said. “Just getting in relationships with the dogs, because they are here for a long time. You get to know them.”
She encourages others who may have a talent for comforting animals to volunteer.
“Come on down to the shelter,” Newbrey said. “We need all the help we can get.”
FFDAS volunteers are needed in many capacities: at the shelter, at offsite adoption events, with fundraising and community outreach, and with fostering animals.
Shelter manager Heather Mehi of Van Buren Township said that without volunteers, the shelter could not continue to make a difference in the life of animals waiting for homes.
“We don’t have enough staff to give the attention to the animals or to the customers who are coming in to look,” Mehi said, “so without (volunteers), we can’t run.”
Maribeth Cote of Westland, a special education teacher with the Dearborn Public Schools, has brought special education students to volunteer at the shelter for the past three years.
“They really enjoy coming and seeing all the animals and helping out,” Cote said.
She said her student volunteers do laundry, wash animal food dishes, walk dogs and interact with the animals.
Cote said volunteer interaction with the shelter animals is important to help prepare them for adoptive homes.
“When they get into a home, it will be a home that they can stay in, and they are ready to be there,” Cote said. “You get an animal that’s not been petted or not been cared for, then it would be harder to keep them in a home. They may not be used to it.”
Animal placement counselor Jessica Rico of Taylor said they need volunteers who can spend time socializing cats, brushing them, and providing human contact.
Dog walking, puppy socialization, and spending one-on-one time with the dogs also is important, Rico said.
“Just to keep them stimulated while they’re here,” Rico said. “They are in their kennels, so they need more interaction.”
Volunteer coordinator Katie Johnson of Dearborn said that when the shelter was founded in 1993, it was exclusively run by volunteers. She said they now have about 30 full- and part-time employees, but volunteers are crucial to the shelter’s daily operations.
“We have always depended heavily on volunteers in every aspect of the organization,” Johnson said. “For the care of the animals, for customer service, for fundraising, for everything that we do.”
She said they have more than 100 active volunteers they see every week.
Johnson said some volunteers want personal contact with the animals, but for others, seeing so many animals that need their help is overwhelming.
“Maybe they have different skills that they’d rather use,” Johnson said. “We have folks that help with our fundraising, that help organize and put on events.
“We have a community outreach team, and we have folks that do administrative support type things, help in the office. There are so many things that you can do.”
Other adults are needed to mentor youth volunteers, age 12 to 15, to teach them about animal issues and have a positive experience while they work with shelter animals.
“The majority of our animals come to us as strays,” Johnson said. “We have a number of rambunctious dogs who need a little help with their manners. With cats a lot of times it is a fear thing, nervous in a new place. This is a lot for a cat to be in a shelter.”
Johnson said they have two specially trained groups of animal volunteers.
The “pit crew” learns to work with dogs with challenges, socializing them, building their confidence, and taking them on weekend hikes.
The “cat coaches” do clicker training with reticent felines, using treat rewards to get the shy cats to associate people approaching their cage with a positive experience.
Johnson said there are so many volunteer opportunities that people will be able to find something that matches their interests and their schedule.
“I always tell folks that I started out as a volunteer,” Johnson said. “I love helping animals in my own town, so I think if it is your passion, it is very fulfilling.
“We need you here if you are an animal lover and a people lover,” Johnson said. “Folks that can help with people, and help them to find a perfect (pet) match. We need folks with those skills and that passion.”
Sandy Boulton of Dearborn, the public relations spokeswoman for the shelter, said that as a non-profit organization, is it important that funding is used to care for the animals, and volunteers allow them to do that.
“The volunteers are truly our employee workforce at large that help expand the great work that the staff is able to do,” Boulton said. “They are our ambassadors out in the community, to staff all of the off-site events that we do, functions that we have, and caring for the number of animals specifically.”
Boulton said volunteers enable the shelter to provide the animals with the superior level of care they receive.
“It isn’t always this gigantic commitment,” Boulton said. “It is just us helping as humans, and giving a voice to those who don’t have one, and we are grateful for anyone who is willing to do that.”
To learn more about fostering an animal, contact program coordinator Kristin Boehmer at 313-943-2697, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about volunteering, go to dearbornanimals.org/get-involved/volunteer, or contact Johnson at 313-943-2697, Ext. 3555, or email her at email@example.com.