Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hand2Paw: The magic behind the scenes

My name is Amy Rossi, and I am currently involved with Hand2Paw public relations and blogging. I've been in daily contact with Hand2Paw founder, Rachel Cohen, an inspirational woman who tirelessly pursues her non-profit work even as a full-time college student at UPenn (not to mention her added responsibilities as a Resident Advisor and president of Penn Alternate Spring Break). Since the day Rachel informed me about Hand2Paw, I've been a major advocate for the program. An animal lover myself, I was thrilled to hear that a program like Hand2Paw existed in Philadelphia, a city with a major stray animal and homeless youth problem.

I'd met Rachel in person only once, and had heard so much about Hand2Paw, but I'd never witnessed it in person.

That changed yesterday.

As soon as we walked into Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), the first animal shelter Hand2Paw partnered with, Rachel efficiently organized training treats, unloaded bags of volunteer scrubs, and hung flyers on the wall announcing the partnerships between youths and PAWS shelter animals (known as "Pen Paws"). As youths made their way into the conference room, Rachel diligently handed out name tags and made introductions to some of the Hand2Paw players -- dog trainer, Tyanne McClain; Covenant House Rights of Passage Manager, Rob Zindell; Brittany Durphy, PAWS Kennel Attendant, and several others. 

Photo: Christopher L. Decker
The atmosphere was charged with energy as the youths prepared to tackle the day's tasks. As they donned their scrubs (generously donated to Hand2Paw by UPenn's Vet School), Rachel cheerfully coached them on the activities they could participate in. A couple volunteers went outside to work with professional trainers to teach dogs basic commands like sit, stay, and give a paw. The ground was muddy from a recent rainfall, but the youths didn't seem to notice; I saw them kneel down on the wet ground just to pat a dog on the head when he followed a command. Other volunteers gave dogs baths; one would comfort the dog while another would shampoo and rinse him. Teamwork and cooperation were evident the entire time. 

Photo: Christopher L. Decker
One of the more seasoned volunteers is now becoming a paid intern at PAWS through the Hand2Paw program. This cat connoisseur discovered his love for animals after volunteering with Hand2Paw for only a short time, and now he wants to pursue a career as a veterinary technician! "I never really had the opportunity to work with animals like this before," he said. "Other than having pets of my own, actually being able to be around animals like this has made me want to work with them."

It was wonderful to hear how Hand2Paw has literally changed his present and future life. And he's certainly genuine; when he didn't know anyone was looking, the tenderness he showed the cats he held was breathtaking. 

"If there's anyone who could sit there and say working with animals doesn't make them happy, there would have to be something wrong," he told me. "I can't specify one thing that I enjoy the most -- working with animals is all a great experience." 

Photo: Christopher L. Decker
Watching the youths hard at work was mesmerizing. I loved seeing their gentleness while holding the animals. Their smiling faces when a dog responded to their training techniques. Their laughter as they watched tiny kittens playing during "kitten holding" time. I had the opportunity to sit down with a few of them to get their feedback on Hand2Paw.

"I come from a shelter, so it makes me feel like I can relate to the animals," said one girl. "Animals are a lot like humans. They live, breathe, eat, and sleep just like us and they have emotions, too. They need just as much as we do."

Photo: Christopher L. Decker
Another volunteer, a young girl who was volunteering at PAWS for the first time through Project H.O.M.E., excitedly described her first day. "I think working with animals makes me relaxed. It's actually more comfortable working with animals than people, because animals don't yell at you," she said. "By coming here today, it shows that some dogs that I might see on the streets actually are really nice. I really didn't like pit bulls a lot, but I just worked with a pit bull and it was really cool." 

Volunteering at the shelter empowers these youths, gives them a sense of responsibility, and teaches them the true meaning of respect for animals. This is a message they'll bring back to their peers and eventually pass on to their children. The animals, who so desperately crave the affection of human beings, benefit deeply from this partnership as well.

Homeless youths and homeless animals, both in need of loyalty and comfort, are both receiving these things through Hand2Paw. After seeing the magic of Hand2Paw unfold before my eyes, I'm now even more convinced that the program is destined for major success. 

Photo: Christopher L. Decker

Want to help Hand2Paw reach even more youths and animals? Vote for Rachel in the Students in Service Award competition -- the 12 finalists will be announced on Friday so every vote is crucial!

Rachel, I know you've heard this before, but you are a hero, both to me and to the animals you help every day. You are selfless, compassionate, and sincere. I'm honored to be a part of this program, but most of all, I'm honored just to have met someone as kindhearted as you. Thank you for all you do.

Rachel Cohen, Founder/Director of Hand2Paw
Photo: Christopher L. Decker
Click here to see all the photos taken at yesterday's volunteer session at PAWS! All photos taken by Christopher L. Decker, Hand2Paw social media strategist and blogger for Get Socialnomical: It's Common Sense.


  1. This is great the kids give an energy like no other they belong together for that loving energy only kids and animals have Blessings to all!

  2. I've just come across Rachel's work and Hand2Paw.
    I'll be doing my best to share this with people in my world - via my animal talkies blog and also my radio show.

  3. @Andrea - Thanks so much! The kids absolutely love being involved with it, and so do the animals :)

    @Karishmeh - Thank you so much for sharing! We can reach so many more people and animals when our friends share with others :) If you write about Hand2Paw, please send us the link, and also let us know when you plan to mention us on the radio!