It’s holiday season, and that means that many different people and groups of people are looking for ways to give back to their communities this month. As an animal shelter, we’re incredibly fortunate in that we work toward a cause that is very near and dear to many people’s hearts, but also one that even someone looking for more casual volunteer work can get behind. Most people who haven’t had some sort of traumatic experience with an animal or animals in their pasts can’t help but be won over by the idea of helping out a big dough-eyed dog or a cuddly lap cat, so all year long (but especially in November and December) we get plenty of requests to come in and work from school groups, college alumni groups, and particularly corporate groups whose companies are usually sponsoring some kind of paid “day of service” that encourages employees to go out together and volunteer at a non-profit organization.
When I first started at The Anti-Cruelty Society in February of 2014 (just one month shy of the organization’s 115th birthday), there was not a program in place to accommodate one-off volunteer groups like this. If you’ve happened upon this blog because you work or have worked at a shelter, you’re probably already aware of the inherent safety and liability concerns that go along with allowing untrained volunteers handle animals (even the friendliest cats and dogs have their moments) or even to work with the chemicals used to clean the kennels. However, this is often what most groups are expecting to do when they initially reach out to us looking to help. Since this is obviously not a realistic possibility (our training program for regular volunteers is already nearly 8 hours long), myself and my boss Lydia, who at the time was only in charge of the Volunteer Services Department, were tasked with developing a program that would allow us to provide opportunities for the high volume of requests we were receiving from groups looking to spend a few hours working in our shelter. In hindsight, the Crafting Crew group volunteer program was really the first initiative of what would become the Community Programs Department, combining the brainstorming and manpower of Volunteer Services and Humane Education.
We started by considering what projects would be appropriate and easy to build into the program; fortunately, there was already precedence for this sort of thing. Years before I got here, the Humane Education Department was having a similar issue where they were receiving regular inquiries from high school students in need of service learning hours. For those outside of Chicago, this is because Chicago Public Schools (CPS) require all of their students to complete 40 service learning hours over the course of their four years in high school in order to qualify for graduation. Since having untrained teenagers working on-site in the shelter would be even more of a headache that untrained adults, the department concocted a plan to find a way to help them contribute to the shelter without having to actually be at the shelter. The result was the collection of service learning projects that we still use today (for the most part, but that’s another story).
The most popular of these projects were the do-it-yourself donation items. The quick phone call explanation of these projects is that we have 5 different products that a person or people can make (3 cat toys, 1 dog toy, and no-sew beds that can be of varying sizes to accommodate cats and dogs) using common materials that everyone usually either has or can easily obtain, such as a t-shirt, a pair of scissors, some fleece fabrics, old wine corks, cotton balls, etc. High schoolers would constantly be making these items at home and then bringing them into the shelter to donate in exchange for service learning hours, and it was clear that they were becoming more and more popular each year. Truthfully, this is probably because they can be done at home and if you have enough old t-shirts and a pair of scissors, you don’t really have to put any effort into gathering materials. They’re also easy to learn, and once you’ve figured out how to make one dog tug toy/cat wand/no-sew bed, you can make as many as you want until you run out of resources. It seemed like a no-brainer to make these projects the focal point of our new group volunteer program. After all, we always need toys for the animals to help them remain mentally stimulated in their kennels, and for the most part, the no-sew beds tend to get torn up after being used by only one or two cats or dogs. Again, as most shelter workers probably already know, it’s not all that uncommon to be short on items like this – especially when they can easily be destroyed by bored animals.
Once we had a project selected, we tried to develop ideas for making the program even more appealing. Since seeing and interacting with animals is the biggest draw for most participants, we decided to include a tour of our facilities as part of the program. Accompanying the tour is usually an introductory presentation about The Anti-Cruelty Society, our history, and the work that we are doing these days. While the primary purpose of this program is obviously to engage organizations in our community that are interested in making an impact on the cats and dogs in our shelter, we also view these Crafting Crews as an opportunity to educate people about our mission and the important role that an open admission shelter plays in assisting the community; this is our attempt at creating long-term advocates for the Society and the animals that stay with us. Plus, the tours give them a chance to see most of the hundreds of furry critters that we have on-site.
But we also wanted to make sure that we kept the atmosphere loose and fun for the participants, because it’s just smart to make sure that people have a good time while they’re here and have positive associations with our organization. We already regularly have events that take place in our Mullane Auditorium (which is where the Crafting Crews are also held) that allow food, so it was easy to open up the option to groups to bring in food for their volunteers. This was a good move and has been a big hit with most groups. I would say around half of the Crafting Crews that we have in (although that figure goes way up if you only look at our corporate volunteer groups) end up getting some kind of food catered that they can snack on while they work. I’ve seen everything from Mediterranean food to burritos to pizza (easily the most popular option). No matter what food they choose, the simple act of having a spread of goodies creates an almost party-like vibe and puts participants in a good mood.
The other thing that helps volunteers enjoy themselves is using our auditorium’s overhead projector and surround sound system to allow groups to watch a movie or listen to music on streaming services like Pandora or Spotify, etc. This also makes for a more casual atmosphere and allows participants to get comfortable and into their work.
Over time, we’ve started adding smaller details to really flesh out the program and make it more enticing. We now offer to let groups do a few more tasks around the shelter, such as doing laundry, taking out the garbage, and (for morning groups only) cleaning our outdoor courtyard before the shelter opens for business. However, the most popular thing we do is something that started out as a treat for certain groups, but has blossomed into a regular part of the program; this is the chance for groups to get to hang out with a cat or (usually) dog from the shelter at the end of their sessions. Of course, it’s not just about having fun, as we consider socializing a shelter animal to be an integral part of the work our volunteers do, and this is just a chance for these animals to get the very specific but important social experience of meeting a large group of people at once. The luckiest groups are the ones that happen to schedule sessions when we have a litter of puppies living in our Real Life Room. These pups are staying here during what is literally the most important period of their lives as far as socialization is concerned, so our Animal Behaviorists that care for them are more than happy to sit down all of the Crafting Crew volunteers in our Training Room and let the puppies loose to get some experience meeting strangers and learning how to interact appropriately with humans.
Crafting Crews have been a tremendous success for us here at The Anti-Cruelty Society (at least as far as I’m aware). For starters, when I started here, a common issue was not having enough enrichment items to go around. Today, the biggest complaint seems to be having too many cat and dog toys to reasonably expect to go through at our current rate. We’ve even started taking some of the excess supplies and sending them as goodwill gifts to Chicago Animal Care and Control. But when I say “success,” I don’t just mean that the program has provided us with a large supply of cat cork toys and no-sew beds, but also that it has opened us up to the possibility of working with many different organizations around the city, getting their students/members/employees intimately involved in our community of caring, exposing them to our mission and the work that we do, and hopefully inspiring them to continue to support us after their sessions are over. Many notable companies have participated in Crafting Crews over the last year and a half, including Google, Allstate, Yahoo, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Pandora, Deloitte, Hilton, Salesforce, Groupon, CBRE, Fifth Third Bank, Staples, and many more. In addition, dozens of Chicago-area schools have had groups of students come in to participate in the program. We have had many past participants come back to volunteer more than once, and this program has allowed us to create new relationships with organizations like the Boston Consulting Group, who have now held multiple in-office donation drives to raise money and awareness for our organization, just to give one example.
Sessions are currently scheduled on weekdays from either 9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. or 1:00 – 4:00 p.m. Groups must bring at least 10 participants, with a maximum of 30 people. We are currently looking into finding ways to adjust our staffing to allow for weekend Crafting Crews, but at the moment that is not always an option. If you’re interested in scheduling your group for a Crafting Crew session, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.