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Class of ’89 & ’12 | The connection between 750 homeless Philadelphia kids and 5,000 shelter animals might seem tenuous. But it’s not.

“They’ve all been helped by Hand2Paw,” asserts Penny Ellison L’89, who runs the nonprofit. Since it was established in 2009, Hand2Paw has given at-risk teenagers a sense of purpose as well as valuable work experience while helping animals at understaffed shelters.

Ellison, an adjunct professor at the Law School, teaches Animal Law and Ethics. Hand2Paw was the brainchild of Rachel Cohen C’12, her former student, who remains on the board.

“Rachel was volunteering at Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS),” Ellison recounts. “While walking there from campus, she noticed homeless teenagers hanging out on the University Avenue Bridge, clinging to their pets, particularly pit bulls. She talked to the teens and learned that they loved their dogs so much that they were often unwilling to abandon them so that they could enter shelters, even in the freezing cold. This unconditional love between the youth and their dogs inspired Rachel to create Hand2Paw and try to help animals and teens at the same time.”

After Cohen graduated four years ago, Ellison took the reins. She recruited second-year students from Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine to serve as volunteers and mentors. Every week, about eight teenagers—most from Covenant House, a shelter for homeless teens—come to a Hand2Paw volunteer session at PAWS or another city animal shelter. There they are divided into smaller groups and given different tasks, such as feeding kittens in the maternity ward, socializing adult cats, or giving dogs some outdoor training time.

The program has already proven successful. “We define success broadly,” notes Ellison. “For the vast majority of the teenagers, success means getting out of the shelter and having a positive experience with animals in a similar position. The young adults receive love and affection while feeling useful.”

Furthermore, Ellison says, about 20 of them have earned internships at shelters, paid for by Hand2Paw. And several have gotten permanent jobs and/or gone back to school. She mentions Drew, a youth whom Hand2Paw featured in a segment on TV’s Wild About Animals. He obtained employment at a pet supply store.

Jerome, who earned an internship at the Pennsylvania SPCA through Hand2Paw, was hired on a permanent basis. He has since moved on to other employment, made possible by the work experience he obtained through the program. He now attends Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) while working.

Ellison may be most proud of Cheryl, who could be a poster child for Hand2Paw.

“Three years ago, Cheryl came to her first volunteer session at PAWS,” she explains. “She was desperately shy and tried not to be noticed during the orientation where leaders discuss dog behavior. But when we entered the kennels, she opened up. She loved interacting with the animals, and after many visits, got the courage to ask about an internship.” As Cheryl opened up, she revealed more about her harrowing childhood: how she had been taken from her mother at 4 and placed in foster care for three years. After she was finally returned to her mother, she lost her to cancer when she was 11. The following years were filled with abuse and neglect, and eventually homelessness. “Believing in Cheryl, we got her a job at PAWS,” says Ellison. “Because she was employed, she was able to leave Covenant House and move to her own beautiful apartment at JBJ Soul Homes, a joint project of Jon Bon Jovi and Project HOME. She’s also an honors student at Community College of Philadelphia. Most astonishing to me, this young woman who once couldn’t look us in the eye shared the stage with Jon Bon Jovi, Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME, the president of City Council, and other dignitaries. She brought the house down when she read a poem about her mother and her own journey out of homelessness. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. Cheryl has moved up and now works at a doggie day-care center because of the employment she received through Hand2Paw.”

Ellison continues to mentor Jerome and Cheryl, while also supervising the Animal Law Project, a Penn student-run program that provides pro bono legal work to non-profit animal advocacy groups. In addition, she works as a circuit mediator for the US Court of Appeals and has mediated more than 1,200 cases.

“Law students are passionate about animal welfare, issues such as humane factory farming, and the course came about after they petitioned the dean of the Law School,” explains Ellison. “Teaching allows me to educate them on all aspects of our treatment of animals. I know that they will undoubtedly go on to be influential among their friends and colleagues, so it feels like I am leveraging the impact of my efforts.”

Running Hand2Paw is rewarding because it allows her to help both animals and people at the same time, says Ellison. “Most of the animals that land in shelters, particularly in Philadelphia, end up there because of conditions related to poverty—unstable housing, inability to afford food or vet care, broken families. The animals really appreciate interacting with the children and thrive because of the love and attention they receive.”

Ellison is often asked why she cares so much about animals when there is so much human suffering. Hand2Paw, she responds, is a “beautiful representation of how you don’t have to choose between helping animals and helping people.”

While managing a nonprofit isn’t easy, Hand2Paw operates mostly on volunteer labor so that donations can be used to provide paid internships to the youth and to hire someone to train and supervise them, Ellison explains. “It’s not difficult to interest people in giving to our cause when they hear about it because they feel like they are doubling their money by helping youth and animals at the same time.”

She hopes to expand the program to other cities—and, perhaps, other animals.

“I always felt compassion for animals,” she says. “It took teaching the class and learning in depth about the ethical dilemmas created by our uses of animals to have that compassion spread from companion animals to all species.”

—Jane Biberman CW’65

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    2 Responses

    1. Ruth

      I’m interested in starting a similar program here in Indianapolis. I am a veterinarian with pre-vet training in Family Therapy at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and post-vet training in Public Health & Epidemiology.
      Thanks for reporting on this inspiring program!

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