How Helen Woodward Animal Center is Changing the World

Every month Organik SEO interviews a business that either represents the entrepreneurial spirit on which our agency was founded (in our Entrepreneurs Series) or a company that we respect and admire for their commitment to better the world (our Companies that Care Series). This month, we’re honored to highlight an organization that is near and dear to our hearts: Helen Woodward Animal Center. My co-worker Nicole and I visited the Rancho Santa Fe animal shelter recently. We were treated to a tour of the facility from Mindy Wright, the assistant manager of communications, and later spoke with Jessica Gercke, the manager of communications. What impresses us most about Helen Woodward Animal Center is how the organization activates influencers to help spread their message and the breadth of the programs the shelter has created and supports. The organization’s programs support seniors, people with disabilities, children with troubled pasts, the local community and so much more. See a full list of the programs here: http://www.animalcenter.org/programs/

We interviewed both Jessica and Mindy to learn about the programs, how they organize promotional efforts, and what it takes to help shelter pets:

What are the top goals for Helen Woodward Animal Center this year and next year?

Jessica: There are so many programs at Helen Woodward Animal Center and each has its specific goal. Last year, we adopted out 3,000 pets. Every day the adoption team tries to outdo their [previous] number of adoptions. Our Business of Saving Lives program allows us to reach out to a number of rescue facilities and train them. [Editor’s note: This program features free workshops for animal welfare organizations to help increase adoptions and lower euthanasia rates.] For the first time this year, we’ve taken our Business of Saving Lives classes to other places. We went to Seattle this year and Virginia Beach. Next year we’re going to Australia. They have a huge feral cat issue there. The cats are almost looked at as a nuisance.

Our Home 4 the Holidays program, which we started 17 years ago, helps facilitate placements of pets during the holiday season. Since 1999 we have placed over 10 million orphan pets into loving homes by partnering with over 4,000 rescue facilities in 22 different countries and all 50 states. This year we will place another million into loving homes in partnership with the other organizations. With each program it’s always about trying to expand it and reach more people. Our AniMeals program expanded with participation from The Angel’s Depot, an organization devoted to providing food for the elderly poor in San Diego County and helping improve the quality of their lives. [Editor’s note: AniMeals was founded in 1984 after a volunteer with Meals-on-Wheels realized one of her senior clients was sharing her delivered food with her cat. The woman was sacrificing her own health for her pet’s wellbeing. The volunteer shared this story with Helen Woodward Animal Center and the solution was AniMeals, a program that provides pet food for homebound seniors and people with disabilities to help their beloved pets.] For the first time ever this program is working with Wounded Warriors. Blue Buffalo partners with us to help feed military pets.

Can you tell us about your outreach efforts?

Jessica: Because there are 12 programs, we could probably do a press release every single day. The same thing with social media. The great thing from a public relations perspective is there are always great stories coming out of the programs. Each program has its own staff and volunteers that help spread the word. Animeals, for example, has held three food drives with Qualcomm, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and more. Each program has its own creative way of managing promotional efforts. Mindy and Marcy (Marcy managesHelen Woodward Animal Center’s social media) organize getting the word out. For most of the programs that provide education, therapy and adoptions, they don’t need to drum up demand, they try to respond to it. The programs are basically free to the people that need them. We don’t have a marketing budget because of this.

animeals at helen woodward

Image from Helen Woodward Animal Center’s AniMeals program.

We do market our Critter Camp to schools and funds from this help support other programs at Helen Woodward. Critter Camp teaches compassion and love to children at a young age. A great example of this is our ‘Be a Vet Day’ program. Kids want to know, “What could I do if I were to become a vet?” The children recently learned how to use sutures on banana peels and performed a checkup on a mini horse. One of the snakes had a tumor removed and the children were able to examine the snake.

Our education department hosts a DogSmart program during which they introduce kids to dogs and explain the difference between scared behavior and friendly behavior. This department also holds an autumn harvest tour and explains the value of critters that people might think of as ‘gross.’ The Pet Encounter Therapy program pairs loving animals with troubled children. They have a sweet dog nuzzled up to them and soon they’re hugging the animals and feeling connected. The animals don’t care what you look like, what your economic background is but they can sense goodness.

Do you work with other shelters to help spread the word about shelter pets?

The Business of Saving Lives program. We do a three-day training program. Twice a year we’ll go to other locations. Two or three times we host a big international conference. At least for the next couple years, we’ll do the free ones. During the one-day Business of Saving Lives conferences, we primarily teach fundraising and development, social media and overall marketing. We think of the major things that a rescue facility needs. We run into a lot of mom and pop rescue facilities that don’t know how to get the word out and raise funds. The three-day workshop teaches attendees everything from HR to volunteer to education. Mike Arms, who runs this program, teaches other rescue facilities how to get free PR, conduct great social media and, if possible, set up smaller for-profit ventures where they can make some money, like an educational program. We’ve had people come from Dubai, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Australia to study with us. It’s been really rewarding.

Which Helen Woodward Animal Center programs do people not know about, but should?

Mindy: In addition to the previously mentioned programs, Remember Me Thursday is a special program that Helen Woodward Animal Center staff member Mike Arms started three years ago. It began as a simple way for animal lovers to come together and remember the 3 million shelter pets that die in shelters, just because they weren’t able to find a home. It’s a way to take a moment and light a candle and remember that next year we can do better. Actresses Kathryn Heigl and Cari Ann Inaba participate in this initiative.

Jess: We encourage other facilities to participate on the fourth Saturday of September. 26 countries participated this year. People were lighting candles and posting pictures online.

Mindy: People take it and do what they want with it. Some people use it as a way to tell their pet’s story. It means so much when someone close to you advocates for something versus if it’s the same voices always asking people to ‘adopt don’t shop.’

Mindy: We’ve had sports teams that participate, too. It expands every year. This past year we featured a children’s book to help kids advocate for adoption.

helen woodward pet encounter therapy program

Image from Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Pet Encounter Therapy program.

What are some of the challenges animals face when entering the shelter?

Jess: One of the things that people don’t know about our center is that 90 percent of the animals that come to our shelter are from other shelters that might not be no kill. Many of these facilities are struggling. We get a lot of calls from rescue facilities that have pregnant animals. If you have limited space and resources, suddenly you don’t have one dog, you have eight. There are other facilities that will euthanize [shelter pets] because they can’t take care of all the babies. So we take in a number of animals that shelters can’t care for. Many that come in need support. Willow, my dog that was abused, spent time with Rob [a Helen Woodward Animal Center staff member] learning to trust people. There are things [the team] does to help with them. The main thing is the medical challenges that [animals] come in with.

We love to try to get a story out of unique cases because these animals are amazing. We feel so much for animals when we hear their stories because they’re so brave, courageous, loving and forgiving. We had a puppy named Grace [come in] that had her mouth bound and it looked like she had been shocked. That puppy ended up being incredible. She is completely forgiving and loves people. There are a lot of good, happy endings here.

Mindy: The biggest challenge the animals face is that people won’t give them a chance. People have a negative idea of what they’re going to see when they visit a shelter. But by the time [the animals] have had medical attention, training and have been with volunteers, they’re just like any other dog you’d see walking around your neighborhood.

Jess: I rescued a trained dog from here. He’s like a person. People give up on puppies because they’re like babies. But you’d have the same experience with a purebred puppy [as you would with a mutt].

Mindy: If you go to a shelter, you can get a dog that’s fully trained.

Jess: Our adoption staff knows the dogs and loves them. A breeder [doesn’t know the individual personalities of each dog]. We’ve seen quite a few purebreds come through our doors [after owners didn’t want to care for them anymore].

Mindy: Our staff has 40 years of experience. We screen people [when they’re considering adopting], for their own good.

Jess: And the animal’s good.

Can you share one of your best success stories or a story that particularly touched your heart?

SK: While touring the facility, Mindy shared a beautiful story with us. Helen Woodward Animal Center, as mentioned, has therapy programs. The Pet Encounter Therapy program takes loving animals to people in various settings including nursing homes, children’s shelters, hospitals, psychiatric wards and more. Mindy mentioned that some animals have an innate gift that helps them connect with people who need affection and love. She told us about a parrot who was especially good with people who have physical limitations that don’t allow them to pet animals. The parrot would intuitively find a way to connect with people even if they couldn’t readily connect with him. He would position himself on the person’s chest and affectionately nuzzle their neck, providing comfort and support. As Mindy mentioned, animals don’t ask questions. They don’t judge you. They’re just there for you.

How can people become involved with Helen Woodward Animal Center?

Jess: If you love animals and want to help animals, there are so many ways you can. Fostering is huge. We love our foster parents.

Mindy:  [You can foster] as little as a few days. Sometimes we just need somewhere to put [the animals]. You’re saving the animal and opening up a space for another one.

Jess: And of course there’s the basic volunteering. People can donate and they choose which places they want to volunteer. They can volunteer at SurfDogs. Or they can do something more formal and help at our Spring Fling. Mindy and I do a lot of ridiculous things like Puppy Prom and a Mardi Paw Parade. There are so many ways to get involved. We’ve got volunteers in every program. We’re always looking for people to help with admin work, too. You can just go to the website and there’s a volunteer link. Once a month, we do an orientation and you can hear about all the different ways you can volunteer and get involved.

Editor’s note: If you’re planning to add a permanent furry member to your family this holiday season, visit Helen Woodward Animal Center to find your new best friend: Adoptions at Helen Woodward Animal Center.

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