Most everyone thinks of the Lawrence Humane Society as an organization that deals only in four-footed animals - or two-footed, feathered ones. And that's a good thing. That's who we're in the business of helping, and we work hard at being a good neighbor for the community in that way.
But truly good neighbors like to help out in more ways than just one.
In addition to serving the companion animals in our town, the shelter also wants to help some of the human members who have lost their way just a bit and who need a little direction to get their lives back on track.
So about six years ago, with the help of a Douglas County foundation grant, the Humane Society became involved in the Community Service Work Program. We agreed to oversee young people who either had committed crimes and were required by the court to work at a service organization as a form of payback to the community, or kids who were considered "at risk" by County Corrections or Douglas County Youth Services and were in need of some training in responsibility.
After a successful first year, we sought out funding for a second year in the program, which came from the Rotary Club. And since that time, the Humane Society has worked on its own, with executive director Midge Grinstead serving as the supervisor. Since our initial involvement in the program, the shelter has become the No. 1 placement for County Corrections, and we have had some adults who serve hours for us as well.
While we don't usually know the specific crimes of the participants who come in through this program, we do request a heads-up on those who have been involved in assaults so we can work with them a little more closely. The only folks we refuse to accept are those who are known to have been involved in animal abuse; that's a risk we simply won't take with our furry and feathered friends.
It hasn't always been easy, of course. These members arrive needing to complete a term of service of anywhere from five to 400 hours. Often we start out with individuals who are a bit sullen and pretty unhappy about having to serve, but we know we have something to work with in at least some of them because they have expressed some interest in animals.
And in fact, once these folks spend a day or so at shelter, something pretty amazing starts to happen. The verbal abuse they spout and the fear or even claimed hatred of animals on the parts of these participants - that "You can't make me do this" attitude - begins to turn into a more inquisitive "What's this stuff?" and "Why do you do that?" Gradually, we start to hear "I can do that, if you want" and "Can I feed them?" and "Would it be okay if I pet him?" Purrs and wagging tails, soft muzzles and wet tongues - unconditional love - all have a way of doing that.
That's the magic of the program: It so often works well at bringing kids around to learn some respect for those who are in charge and teach them what to do.
These youths begin to understand that they have something to offer the companion animals who depend on them for their most basic needs, and they also realize that the animals have something to offer in return. For the majority of these kids, most of whom come from dysfunctional families, the animals provide a substitute for the love and understanding they may be missing at home.
Most important, the kids begin to have respect for themselves and what they have to offer the world, which is what they most lacked when they arrived.
According to community service work coordinator Tony Jones, recidivism for those who work with us is extremely low.
"The shelter is one of the only organizations that is currently working to improve the lives of the children who come to them for community service," Jones has said.
We're proud of that high praise, and we know we've really done our part when, upon completion of their service hours, the participants ask, "Can we come back and volunteer?" Some also have returned to adopt a pet from the shelter.
And, in fact, a few of the graduates from this program later interviewed for positions at the shelter, and we added them to our payroll. They were good workers, and we were happy to be able to offer them positions.
It's all part of being a good neighbor in the community.
Want to know more about the shelter and upcoming events, like the annual Douglas County Animal Fair at the fairgrounds on Nov. 12? Santa Paws will be there, so you can get a jump on those holiday cards. Visit us online at www.lawrencehumane.org or phone us at 843-6835 with your questions.