Appreciating Volunteers for National Volunteer Week

National Volunteer Week was celebrated in the United States and Canada between April 10 and 16 of this year. This is an annual event organized by the Points of Light foundation to give organizations a chance to honor the achievements of their hard working volunteers, and here at The Anti-Cruelty Society, we’re more than happy to take part and celebrate our amazing, wonderful, and all-around awesome volunteers.

The festivities began on Sunday, April 10, with a volunteer appreciation kickoff party held right next door to our shelter at the famous Gino’s East pizzeria (and brewing company). A stylish, 1950s-themed affair (see pictures below) that featured tasty pizza, sweet treats, drinks, a photo booth, and plenty of laughs, and some of the Society’s “senior staff” (i.e., Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Directors) were on-hand to work the event and serve the volunteers. And since it was an appreciation party, the Volunteer Services Department publicly appreciated the volunteers with a raffle, personalized pins for those celebrating “milestone” anniversaries at the Society, peer-nominated awards (with winners voted on by all the volunteers), and awards from our President and staff Directors. All in all, it was a fun and successful event for everyone involved – especially Volunteer Services Coordinator Eric Tostado, who was organizing his first National Volunteer Week celebration.


Party hardy

eric lydia and vol

Cool cats and kittens


Remember, though, that this was a week-long volunteer celebration, and the festivities continued with the different departments around The Anti-Cruelty Society each being assigned a weekday on which they were tasked with making some sort of decorative “thank you” display and providing snacks for all of the volunteers working during on that date. Some examples of these staff treats can be seen below. Everyone involved did a great job with their displays, and by the end of the week, departments seemed to almost be trying to outdo one another, with the ideas getting more elaborate and creative as they went on. The Community Programs Department had the Tuesday shift, and Sarah Williams did a great job making an eye-catching full-sized poster for the volunteers that we all signed.

Rehad and CS display.JPG

Rehabilitation and Customer Service staff members show off their tasty cupcakes and retro decor.

Rehab and CS 2

During the week, we also gave out the Volunteer Buddy Award, in which volunteers nominated and awarded the Society staff member that they felt was the most helpful to them. Volunteer Services also organized a scavenger hunt for volunteers and employees to participate in. And finally, on Saturday, April 16, Eric and Lydia hosted a special breakfast and open forum for the Volunteer Leaders to get together, catch up, network, and voice some of their concerns (and compliments) about our volunteer programs as they currently exist.

As always, National Volunteer Week was a great chance for staff and volunteers to come together to enjoy one another’s company (along with some tasty snacks), as well as a great reminder for everyone at the Society to stop and consider just how much work these volunteers do to help keep things running smoothly around here. From walking dogs to helping patrons to assisting in the clinic to pet visitation events to fostering (not to mention the dozens and dozens of other projects they participate in), our roughly 600 volunteers serve as a constant reminder that the work that we do here has an impact and means something to the community that we serve. To have so many people willing to dedicate their time and energy to further our cause is a sincerely humbling gesture that we never want to take for granted.


Veterinary Mentoring Program

Last week, I signed, sealed, and mailed out certificates to the 64 Chicago area high school students that successfully completed the 2015-2016 session of our annual Veterinary Mentoring Program. This is one of the more popular programs that we run here at The Anti-Cruelty Society each year, but  there are still a lot of young people that seem surprised to learn about it.

For this program, we partner with the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine to provide high school students with a serious interest in pursuing a career in veterinary medicine with information about different jobs that they may not have had much exposure to prior to joining the program.


Sessions are held once per month from September – April, with participants meeting at the Society’s Education & Training Center from approximately 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. each time. They are facilitated by a Society staff member and every month has a different professor from the college or a practicing veterinarian presenting on a different field of veterinary medicine. Some of the many topics covered each year include: shelter medicine, equine medicine and surgery, zoological medicine, animal behavior, veterinary ophthalmology, and small mammal surgery, among others. Participants earn a certificate of completion for attending at least 5 of the 8 sessions. The hope is that students can use their participation in this program to help give them a boost in securing internships or even admission into colleges once they’ve finished high school.

As a special treat, the University will also rent a bus to send the participants down to Champaign-Urbana on a Sunday in early October to go and see the college’s annual Open House event.

The requirements for inclusion in the program are that students must be in high school (grades 10 – 12) throughout the duration of the program they are applying for, have at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent for whatever scale their school uses), and have completed a high school-level biology course. At times throughout the program, the presentations will contain ideas or content that is best understood if participants to have at least a fundamental understanding of the biological sciences.

Compared to our other long-term Humane Education program for teens – the animal welfare-focused After School Program – the Veterinary Mentoring Program draws high schoolers with more specific academic and personal interests. However, because the program takes place on weekends and is very niche in its appeal to aspiring veterinarians (there simply aren’t many programs like it in and around Chicago), it actually brings in students from high schools all across the city, as well as many of the surrounding suburbs. In fact, 79 out of the 100 students who participated in this year’s program (aka, 79%) are from cities and communities outside of the Chicago city limits. Speaking Typing from a strictly personal standpoint, I think this (along with the close relationship we’ve developed with the University) is one of the program’s greatest benefits to the Society, as it helps us to expand and reach out to people who are not residents of the City of Chicago, while providing them with a unique service that they may not have access to in their own communities.

Most of the sessions are pretty standard lecture-based presentations, with the idea being to attempt to realistically mimic a college classroom situation (just another way that the program can help prepare aspiring vets for life after high school). Some are a bit more interactive, like the session on zoological medicine, where the doctor from the Brookfield Zoo brings in some interesting animal friends to meet the students (this year that included a hawk and a corn snake). However, the less obvious benefits of participating in the Veterinary Mentoring Program are the ability to network – not only with practicing veterinarians and professors from the University of Illinois, but also by meeting other peers from different high schools and communities that share an interest in working with animals. In many cases, these students would never have been brought together without the program.

If you have stumbled across this blog, live in or around Chicago, and know somebody (including yourself) who may be interested in the Veterinary Mentoring Program, you can learn more about it by clicking this link. Applications for the 2016-2017 program are currently available and can be obtained by emailing Please note that the application deadline for the upcoming program is July 31, 2016.

Tara Laffey, Our New Humane Education Specialist

The Anti-Cruelty Society’s Community Programs Department recently welcomed the newest member of our team, and for the first time ever, we now have three full-time Humane Education Specialists on staff. This will allow us to serve more members of the community each year, as well as expand our program offerings to host events on Saturdays on a more regular basis (more regular = all the time, in this case). I could tell you more about Tara, but I’ll just let her do it herself…


Tara is the one on the left.

“Hi! My name is Tara Laffey. I live in Chicago with my high school sweetheart and two adorable adopted Chihuahuas. My passion for helping animals is what led me here. I have always known helping homeless dogs and cats was my calling, so I began volunteering in animal shelters when I was a teen. I then attended the University of Illinois and earned a degree in Animal Sciences. Shortly after I graduated, I got a job at Chicago’s oldest and largest animal shelter: The Anti-Cruelty Society! I began working in the in the shelter as an Animal Care Specialist. I loved working hands-on with the dogs and cats all day, and my passion for helping homeless animals only grew stronger. Now I work in the Community Programs Department as a Humane Education Specialist. I love sharing my knowledge of animals and pets with the community and hope to inspire more people to care about the plight of homeless pets.”

Paw and Order: Furry Victims Unit

I’m bad at condensing backstories sometimes, but I’m going to try my best here. During my first summer at The Ant-Cruelty Society (summer of 2014), one of the longer-term regular programs that we ran (thanks to a grant from Hive Chicago) was a 10-week summer camp with 8th grade students from the ChicagoQuest charter school, where we enlisted their help to develop a Flash video game based on our Humane Education program Paw and Order: Furry Victims Unit, which is itself based on the actual work of the Society’s Field Services Department.

Throughout the course of this program, Humane Education Manager Elliott Serrano (who was running the camp and overseeing the development of the game) created an activity to help the kids get a more hands-on idea of what it would be like to conduct an investigation into an organized dog fighting ring. Though this sounds pretty bleak, it was actually a lot of fun to participate in, because along with Elliott and the video game’s developer Rob, I got to play one of the witness characters. That means that I was brutally interrogated by the student participants in the program and answered their questions based on the “script” or backstory that I was assigned.

After revamping our popular After School Program this semester to bring the focus back around to animal welfare (it had gotten a bit distracted in recent years, shifting into more of a generic anti-violence program), our Humane Education Specialist Sarah Williams decided to repackage this activity for their section on Animal Advocacy.

Anyway, I mention all this (like I said, I’m long-winded with backstories) because this past Thursday, I was invited to reprise my role as “Witness No. 3” in our improv production of Paw and Order, and any chance to stretch my acting chops is a chance I’ll take.

Each session of the After School Program is 2 hours and 30 minutes long, so they spent the first part of Thursday’s session on our standard Paw and Order presentation – the one that we will give to any school or outside groups that come in or invite us out for our Humane Education programming. This was followed by a puppy break (yeah, we do that) and then the main event of the evening was the big activity.

Sarah is a seasoned RPG participant who is fresh off a recent run as a DM/GM (game manager) for a campaign, so naturally, she took the lead on creating the different characters for the activity. Instead of a dog fighting ring, this story was more of your standard case of animal abuse/neglect. I was Clark, the 27-year-old barista and friend of Adam (played by Elliott) who took me to a party where the owner, Janet (played by Sarah), was neglecting her dog to the point where he was malnourished, sickly looking, and covered in scabs or something gross like that.

The basic gist of the game is that the students break into groups of 3-5 people and then assign different roles to each member. The investigators would then examine the crime scene (see below) for evidence by writing notes and taking pictures (what would we have done in 2005 before every teenager had a cell phone??). They bring all of their evidence back to their groups, and together, they select I think it was up to 5 pieces of evidence to formally submit. Then the facilitators would go over each group’s list of evidence and, if they selected items that had corresponding “clues” (e.g., the footprint was left by a person wearing size 11 shoes), they would give them the list of clues that they earned by submitting the right evidence.

Paw and order crime scene

“A crime seen is a crime scene.”

Groups would then reconvene and look at the clues to determine which witnesses they wanted to and could feasibly bring in for questioning based on the information they had at hand. They would also use the clues to determine their line of questioning (at least, the groups that were thinking ahead would). They could also select new witnesses or redirect their questions based on answers they get from their witness interrogations. So then they would select their witnesses and bring us up one at a time and ask us questions to try to flesh out their investigations. The students not selected to do the initial crime scene investigations were the ones in charge of interrogating the suspects.

I feel like I held up well in the hot seat. It was maybe easier for me since my character was basically Nice Guy Unrelated To Any Criminal Activity Who Just Happened To Be In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time And Really Wants To Comply With The Police. The fun part was adding little details to the portrayal to see how the kids reacted, so like when they “brought me in,” I would make sure to shake everyone’s hands and then sit in a very non-aggressive, open position. Always saying “please” and “thank you” and addressing the participants as “sir” or “madam.” Things that only taking the bare minimum requirements of acting classes in college to earn a minor in Theatre Arts can do for you (actually I was terrible at that in college). Of course, I made sure that all of my answers aligned with Sarah’s guidelines.

They were allowed to ask up to 5 questions per witness, but even then, the interrogations lasted quite a while, so the group ran out of time to decide on who they were going to arrest. The big reveal was saved for the following After School Program session on Tuesday, March 1. I didn’t attend, but apparently every group guessed correctly.

Janet did it. In case you’re interested.

Google Dog Days

Long time no see, eh?

Here’s a fun thing I did recently: Google Dog Days – an event held at their new Chicago office (new in the sense that they just moved locations within the city sometime last year) specifically targeting Googlers that have pet dogs as a sort of employee appreciation exercise.

We were reached out to along with PAWS – the other notable non-profit, non-government animal shelter in Chicago – and a number of other animal-focused organizations from various fields, including pet stores, veterinary centers, dog walking/sitting services, and more. Our roles there were primarily outreach and promotion, letting Google employees attending the event know about our organizations and the services that we offer.

Probably the main thing that I learned at Google Dog Days was that we should get some better SWAG (Stuff We All Get) to give away, or at least that I need a bit more variety. We have some cool and interesting things at the moment – the biggest hit usually being the dog- and cat-shaped rubber ducky toys (I know this sounds insane, so please see the below picture for an example) – but our current crop of giveaways are more generally geared toward a younger audience that we see during our Humane Education programming. I was outshone, to put it bluntly, by some of the other tables that were (by virtue usually of their inventories and ability to take the monetary hit at the expense of positive marketing) able to give away free treats, toys, and doggie accessories to Google employees in attendance.


I guess maybe a better way to put this is that I did not put enough forethought into tailoring the materials I brought for the audience I was going to see. I have this rolling suitcase in my cubicle that is filled with a lot of stuff – such as generic information about our shelter and programming, business cards, our giveaway items (e.g., branded pencils, paw print erasers, the aforementioned rubber ducks), copies of the Society magazine, educational DVDs that we made many years ago, and much more! – and these are the things that I lug around to all of these different outreach events, like Google Dog Days, volunteer fairs, pet de-stressing events at corporate offices, educator fairs, etc.

While most of these items are usually of some interest to the people I meet and open the door for a discussion about The Anti-Cruelty Society and the work that we do, I realized at this event that it would obviously be much more beneficial if I would’ve considered who my audience was going to be and what they might be expecting (or what would’ve been a pleasant surprise). This donned on me early on when I noticed a few of the other tables had brought dog treats. Duh! The whole point of this event was that Google employees could bring their dogs to work for the day and have a few hours to just hang out and interact with one another; of course you bring dog treats to hand out, because what better way is there to get a dog owner and his or her pooch to stop at your table to see what you’re there promoting?

Anyway, that got off on kind of a tangent. The Dog Days event itself was super cool and probably one of the more well thought out office appreciation events like this that I’ve attended. So in addition to having various informational tables and ways for the people attending the event to engage with their co-workers, the whole thing was built around a “dog show” where all of the employees could have a minute where their pooches got to be center-stage, complete with a runway to walk down (seems contradictory, doesn’t it?) and a host that would read the pre-written bio (by the owners, I would assume) about each pet’s unique personality. This was ultimately what really made this such a fun and engaging event, because it tapped into the very basic desire that all pet owners share: To show off exactly how their pet is the best dog/cat/parrot/turtle/etc. in the whole world!

The dog show was judged (by some of the other guests hosting tables) and did have “winners,” but the air was largely uncompetitive, carefree, and fun, which is also a testament to how well-organized the event was and how much effort was put into planning it. All in all, Google Dog Days lasted just under 2 hours, but for the employees who got to bring their beloved pets into the office, I’m sure the whole day was a real treat.

Big Changes for the New Year

The Anti-Cruelty Society’s Community Programs Department is sad to announce the departure of our good friend and colleague Stephanie Bruno, who finished up her run as the Society’s Coordinator of Volunteer Services on Wednesday, December 23. She will obviously be greatly missed by her co-workers and the many volunteers that she managed, and losing her tremendous positive energy will be quite the adjustment for all of us. Fortunately, we have already found a great person to fill her role as we dive headfirst into 2K16.

staff selfie 10

Eric Tostado has been with The Anti-Cruelty Society for over 11 years. He spent most of his tenure here in the Customer Service Department, which he has actually managed for quite some time now. Working in customer service means that Eric has become adept at dealing with the public and handling the strange cases that regularly come through the doors of an animal shelter. As the first point of contact for both patrons and most volunteers, Eric has become a friendly and familiar face for a lot of the people involved in our community of caring. On top of all that, he’s naturally accrued copious amounts of knowledge about the ins and outs of The Anti-Cruelty Society after spending so much time here and being involved in so many different projects. This in-depth understanding of our organization, his comfort and experience working with the volunteers, and his enthusiastic and outgoing personality will make him a perfect fit for this position.

The transition from his current role managing Customer Service into the Community Programs Department will take a few weeks, and he will officially be starting as the Volunteer Services Coordinator on Monday, January 4. Join us in welcoming Eric to the team!

Happy Holidays!

This December in Chicago started out incredibly busy, with people hustling and bustling through the streets lapping up the holiday sales. But this week (starting Monday, December 21) has seen downtown Chicago looking more like a ghost town that I’ve ever seen it look before. Our Community Programs Department – or at least the Humane Education wing of the department – is seeing a similar trend this month.

The early part of December was quite busy around here with a nice mix of school kids, corporate volunteer groups, and outreach events around the community. This includes, but is not limited to, hosting our second ever Kids Who Care workshop, a Pet Visitation event at the Illinois Institute of Technology, hosting a group of 60 fourth graders on-site for our multimedia humane education program “The Pact,” a session of the Veterinary Mentoring Program, a Pet Pause event at the Rush University Medical Center, the winter session of our Pet First Aid & CPR course, a Paw and Order presentation at Deerpath Middle School in Lake Forest, 6 Crafting Crews, and a special get together for our Pet Visitation volunteers and their dogs.

Pets at Rush Holiday

Pet Visitation volunteers and some Rush employees pose for a photo at the Rush University Medical Center.

The Community Programs Department also found time despite all of this programming to go around and do some light decorating of the building for the holidays. For years now, this has been (for whatever reason) the specific task and domain of the Volunteer Services Department, but now that we’ve all rolled into one, Lydia had quite a few extra hands helping to festoon the Society with garland and lights and wreaths, etc. We actually technically did this on November 30, but for my money, it was really an integral part of helping to create an atmosphere of celebration, at least back in our Community Programs space. We even Christmas-bombed Humane Education Manager Elliott Serrano’s desk, because he notoriously dislikes your traditional Christmas décor.

Elliott's desk

Happy Holidays, Elliott!

All in all, I’ve been far more excited about the upcoming weeks of holidays than I normally am, and I think that I can attribute a lot of that to the willingness of the staff to “play along” and embrace the holiday spirit. Secret Santa gift exchanges, after hours department holiday gatherings, and the like have all helped create a sense of merriment among the department and made it easier to maintain focus and look forward to coming in, even as the last few weeks of December slow to a grinding halt because schools are out of session and most people start to use a lot of vacation time around the holidays, so there aren’t any groups coming in until January!

But the most rewarding part of the holiday season definitely comes from seeing the generosity of the community. As I’ve noted in past posts, being an animal shelter means that we often the charity of choice for many people looking to give back this holiday season (especially the cat and dog lovers out there), and this year we have honestly been humbled by the amount of generous gifts that we’ve received to surround the holiday trees placed in our Adoption Center lobby at our 510 N. LaSalle St. entrance, as well as inside the doors of the entrance of our Education & Training Center at 169 W. Grand Ave.

169 Tree

Christmas tree (with donated gifts) located in our Education & Training Center

We’ve received plenty of gifts from individual donors and quite a few from local offices that held donation drives for the holidays, such as the Chicago branch of Purple Strategies. It’s also been great to see companies that volunteered with the Society as part of our Crafting Crew program come back and say that they enjoyed their time with us so much that they raised donations on our behalf, like Andersen Tax and the Boston Consulting Group.

Purple Strats

Employees from Purple Strategies stop by to drop off their office’s donations to The Anti-Cruelty Society and spend some quality time with Sable.

Needless to say, it’s been a fun and exciting holiday season around here!

Mary and Reese

MARY Christmas from Humane Education Specialist Mary Raines and her dog (and Society alum) Reese!