About Crafting Crews

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.

Tug 1

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.

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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.

PWC3

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.

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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 education@anticruelty.org.

Pet Visitation Volunteers

You may not be shocked to hear that one thing our Community Programs Department gets a lot (a looooot) of requests for is to bring our shelter dogs to off-site events for stress relief or promotion or various other reasons. From a community programs perspective, this is a legitimate inquiry and it would obviously drum up a lot in interest in both our adoptable doggies and the organization as a whole.

However, if you consider it from the perspective of someone working in our Animal Behavior Department, or just anyone with any general experience in an animal shelter, taking shelter dogs off-site (which in and of itself requires preparing them with collars, harnesses, and leashes and then loading them into vans to be transported across the city – all potentially stressful situations on their own) opens up the door for a number of potentially disastrous situations to arise.

Considering it from the perspective of a shelter dogs – brought in by your owner without an understanding of why, moved around from kennel to kennel, undergoing a physical examination (and possibly even a spay/neuter surgery if necessary), going through a behavior assessment, and then being visited every day by different patrons for hours on end – taking a trip in a van with a handful of other stressed dogs to go meet sometimes hundreds of other strangers sounds like a recipe for misunderstandings and negative interactions. Obviously, we do not want to put the dogs in this type of situation.

So that is why we initially created our Pet Visitation program, which now allows us to (usually) satisfy the many requests we get to have Anti-Cruelty Society-endorsed dogs attend off-site events. Pet Visitation volunteers operate outside of our normal volunteer programs, and they get to work with their best friend while they do it!

The primary requirement for participating in this program is to have a dog that is Canine Good Citizen certified through the American Kennel Club. A CGC certification is similar to a therapy dog certification (although not quite as strenuous) and simply says that the dog has proven him or herself to be well-mannered around strangers. This includes allowing a friendly stranger to approach the dog and speak to the handler, sitting politely, loose-leash walking, behaving and/or not reacting to another dog, coming when called, supervised separation, and more. For a complete list of all of the CGC test items, please visit this link: http://www.akc.org/dog-owners/training/canine-good-citizen/cgc-test-items-and-pledge/.

Our small, but dedicated, corps of Pet Visitation volunteers and their pooches step up to join Society staff members in representing our organization at a wide variety of different off-site events. Sometimes, this is just a promotional or educational gatherings where we’re trying to raise awareness about the work that we do, but most often it is when we are invited out to visit schools, businesses, or other organizations for de-stressing events where people can take a break from their busy days and spend a few minutes meeting and petting a friendly furry face. We’ve attended events at the University of Illinois Chicago for students during finals week, stopped in at local corporate offices, and even have a standing monthly “Pet Pause” event for employees at the Rush University Medical Center. The hard work and dedication of these volunteers and their pets allows us to go out into the community and making lasting and meaningful connections with individuals and other organizations and is a very beneficial part of what we do here.

Unfortunately, the downside to the Pet Visitation program is that because it uses volunteers and their pets, as opposed to shelter dogs, it can be hard to schedule events around their already busy schedules. It’s even more difficult during weekdays, which tend to me the most commonly requested times. So, if you stumbled across this blog, happen to live in the Chicagoland area, and have a well-behaved pooch that you think would make a great Pet Visitation dog (or know someone else who does), we’d love for you to become part of our Pet Visitation team! To make things even more convenient, The Anti-Cruelty Society’s School of Dog Training offers an AKC CGC 3-week test prep course here in our Education & Training Center (169 W. Grand Avenue). The cost for this class is $60. We also administer CGC tests on-site; just taking the test costs $10 (the cost of the test is included if you take the whole course). If you’re interested in getting your dog CGC-certified at The Anti-Cruelty Society, you can learn more by visiting this link: http://anticruelty.org/pet-behavior-and-training/school-of-dog-training/akc-canine-good-citizen/.

Sharp Dressed Man

Enjoy this picture of our Manager of Humane Education (and respected writer and Internet/radio personality), Elliott Serrano, all dressed up for yesterday’s Combined Federal Campaign kick-off event. He’s even sporting one of the fancy “raining cats and dogs” vests that we dug out of our auditorium closet during a cleaning spree a few weeks ago. (Unfortunately, he did not wear the vest to the event.)

Don't want to neglect mentioning our favorite and slightly creepy robotic cat.

Don’t want to neglect mentioning our favorite and slightly creepy robotic cat.

An Eventful Week

Sometimes you offer to step out of your comfort zone at work because you want to show off your gumption and go above and beyond in the call of duty. And sometimes you do it because there is good beer involved. The latter was the case this past Tuesday, when I left the world of Community Programs (although really in name only, as I was still technically participating in a program with/for the community) to work at one of our Development Department’s biggest fundraisers of the year: Pints for Pets!

If you’re a fan of craft beer, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Revolution Brewing, which is one of Chicago’s premier breweries and the creators of delicious beverages like the Anti-Hero IPA, Eugene Porter, and Fist City. As part of a larger effort to expand our fundraising efforts, create new partnerships with notable Chicago businesses, and reach out to new demographics of potential donors, our Development team (led by the Events Manager) established this brand new event where for $40, patrons got unlimited access to Revolution’s five “core” house beers from the bar, as well as all-you-can-eat buffet style appetizers from the kitchen – all for two full hours.

My job that evening (after helping a little with setup because I wanted a ride over there) was to work at the check-in booth with one of the many volunteers who had signed up to help. It was ultimately a pretty simple task that required greeting people as they entered the upstairs lounge at the Revolution Brewpub (located in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood), getting their names, checking them off of the list, and putting a paper wristband on them so that they can enter and claim their food and drink. The fun part of the job was getting to be the first stop for people who all seemed to be very excited about the event and getting to engage a bit with supporters of ours. Unlike most people in our department, for whom public speaking is sort of par for the course with regards to their positions, I am not naturally fond of talking in front of big crowds (though I will do it when it is required of me). I much prefer smaller scale interactions with just one or a few people; I’m always more at ease and really thrive in these scenarios (part of why I love my job, because most of my outreach work is done at networking events where you experience a high number of smaller interactions). So the way I saw it, the work mostly consisted of meeting a bunch of our wonderful supporters.

It was only a two-hour event, so the night sort of flew by. The first hour, especially, because for 45 minutes there was pretty much a constant stream of people entering the room that needed to be checked in. Obviously, in order for the price of admission to be worthwhile, most people tried to get there for at least an hour, so the second half of the night was much more laid back. There were inevitably still a few people left to check in, but after 7:00 p.m., my primary responsibility became monitoring the cash box and providing change for the volunteers that were walking around and selling raffle tickets. Afterwards, I enjoyed an Anti-Hero and headed home.

That’s not all, though. Last week was literally event-full, as Saturday, October 24 was our big adoption event held in conjunction (and funded by) the automobile manufacturer Subaru. The company generously donated $10,000 to the Society, largely to cover the costs of any animals (of any age) adopted that day. This means that for adopters coming in to get a new furry friend, they did not have to pay a single cent in adoption fees.

I did not have to work at the event itself, but Subaru did request that we organize a little promotional event the day before in the form of a Puppy Parade to our favorite destination location: the Prudential Plaza on the corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue. Even The MIX 101.9 got involved to promote the adoption event and Puppy Parade. This ended up being the largest Puppy Parade of the year (and one of the largest we’ve ever done), with 7 dogs, over 10 staff members and volunteers, and easily over 100 people waiting for us at the Plaza when we arrived. Luckily (or maybe not, depending on the reasons behind it), it has been an uncommonly warm October here in Chicago, so we were all able to get away with wearing sweaters and enjoyed a somewhat grey, but ultimately pleasant hour outdoors with some of our favorite dogs.

By the end of Saturday, we had found forever homes for 44 cats and dogs, all with their adoption fees waived. Our second successful adoption event of the year, and a great way to cap off a fun week here at The Anti-Cruelty Society! A special thanks to Subaru, The MIX, Revolution Brewing, and everyone who made this week possible.

Puppy Overload and Slippery Rock University

In terms of good problems to have, I would say that having your office overrun with a bunch of weeks-old puppies is certainly pretty high on the list.

Early September saw a group of 8 one-week-old grey/blue pit bull puppies and their mother (lovingly referred to as the “hippo puppies”) come to live in the Real Life Room, which is located in the Animal Behavior & Intake Department’s office that shares a wing with Community Programs. This means we’ve been able to spend the last month watching these puppies grow from wrinkly little blobs of grey fur to actually resembling something like a dog.

hippo pup 1

The Anti-Cruelty Society’s policy is not to adopt out any kittens or pups that are under 2 months of age. Whenever possible, this means keeping them with their mothers until they are comfortably weaned. If the mothers do not come into the shelter with the babies for whatever reason, staff members and dedicated group of volunteers will take on the responsibilities of nursing the newborns. Because we get so many litters of kittens in throughout the year (especially during the summer months), we have whole sections of our two cat rehabilitation rooms used to house and care for these young cats. We see a significantly smaller number of litters of puppies, though, and so they will often just come back and live in the Real Life Room for a few weeks before they are ready to get their physical exams and vaccinations, undergo a spay/neuter surgery, and move to the adoption floor.

Lydia hangs out with the hippo puppies.

Lydia hangs out with the hippo puppies.

Normally, these few weeks mean that we have an adorable group of pups that our Community Programs staff, primarily because of proximity, gets to help socialize during their formative weeks. Often, this also includes bringing the puppies in to meet lucky groups of school children or Crafting Crew volunteers that just happen to have scheduled a visit to the Society while the puppies are staying with us. However, by the time the hippo pups were just getting old enough to show some personality, they were already out the door. If you’ve been paying attention to the timeline, you’ll know that these dogs are still just about a month old, and so not ready to go up for adoption yet; they’ve actually already been moved out of our Real Life Room and are set to be sent (all together, with mama in tow) to a foster home until they reach 2 months of age, because a sudden emergency required us to open up the Real Life Room to yet another pregnant dog.

hippo pup 2

This past Saturday (October 3), Sable gave birth to 11 adorable and healthy little black beans that we get to spend a few months getting to know. Just as the hippo puppies are starting to come into their own and make their way out in the world, a whole new litter takes their place. The Circle of Life! (But let’s be real, the main point of this post is just to show cute pictures of these puppies.)

One sleepy mom and 11 hungry pups!

One sleepy mom and 11 hungry pups!

And speaking of fun visitors, last weekend also saw the arrival of a group of 7 students from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, who spent two days hanging out at the Society. The group came to Chicago as part of a regular series of service trips that they take at the school called “Carebreaks,” where students travel to different parts of the country to participate in service projects for non-profit organizations like The Anti-Cruelty Society. For two days (Sunday and Monday), the group came in to enjoy educational presentations (about the history of the Society and anti-dog fighting), tour our facilities, make toys and beds for the cats and dogs in our shelter, and help socialize the hippo puppies, of course!

August Wrap Up (or some fun, smaller projects that haven’t been mentioned on the blog yet)

August is always a somewhat weird month for our department. Summer camps are over by the end of the first week, but for the most part, Chicago schools don’t start up again until after Labor Day. Historically, this month (like late December/early January) was considered a “slow month” for the Humane Education Department. This year, however, with the fresh injection of energy we’ve gotten since establishing the Community Programs Department, along with all of the work that we have to do for our two new Hive-funded grants and the increasing popularity of our Crafting Crew group volunteer program, August ended up being an incredibly busy month!

For starters, we officially kicked off our Youth-Led Badging program, with our Digital Badging Specialist (DBS) teens coming in to work and launching our Teen Drop-In Days on August 12. Maybe I’m speaking a bit too soon here, but from where I sit, this program has been a great success for us thus far. Considering that we were asking teenagers to take time out of their summer breaks to come in and work on service learning projects, I think that we’ve had a pretty great turnout, with 9 total teens attending the 4 Drop-In Days that we held in August. That also means that we’ve already awarded 9 Chicago City of Learning (CCOL) badges; I would expect that number to increase exponentially as the school year gets underway and students suddenly remember that they have to complete their service learning hours. To get caught up on the teens’ progress so far, and to keep up with the Youth-Led Badging program as it continues to develop, you can check out this blog, which is written and run by the Digital Badging Specialists across the entire program.

I was also fortunate enough to have the chance to attend a couple of off-site tabling events this past month. I always enjoy the chance to get out and interface with the public and talk about the work that we do and try to get people involved in our mission of creating a community of caring. Stephanie and I hosted a table at the American Dental Association as part of their corporation-wide volunteer fair to try to encourage ADA employees to sign up to volunteer at The Anti-Cruelty Society; or maybe the more accurate way to put it is that we provided those employees with the information they would reasonably need to make the decision to volunteer with our organization.

Two days after that I joined Elliott at the Brookfield Zoo to run a table just inside their north gate entrance (directly in front of the carousel). As part of the Chicago Zoological Society’s efforts to connect to the larger animal welfare community around the Chicagoland area, numerous shelters from the city and suburbs were invited to host tables on various dates throughout the summer. We were initially going to take on about 9 different dates, but due to scheduling complications, the aforementioned grants, and the unexpected development of our Community Programs Department, we cut our dates down to just two. Mary and Sarah went in early July, and Elliott and I took the August shift. These events are less about handing out information than they are about engaging (like the blog’s name, eh?) with kids, animal lovers, and members of the community. So needless to say, they’re a little more fun. We had crafting projects (making cork-based cat toys), coloring pages, an animatronic cat, temporary tattoos, and of course, some literature and handouts available for passersby. It was a beautiful day and we each got the chance to walk around and see the cool animals living at the zoo. Just like this peacock friend of ours who wandered up behind our table.

Peacock friend

Peacock friend

As for the Crafting Crews, that feels like a topic for another blog post.

Oh, and I almost forgot about one more fun activity that I was able to participate in last month. Actually, come to think about it, it’s starting to sound like I was doing a lot of running around in August while my co-workers were chained to their desks working hard to develop programs and prepare for the school year – let’s hope they don’t read this post and get wise! Anyway, as part of our efforts to create our final print issue of The Anti-Cruelty Society magazine for the year (which I am lucky enough to be heavily involved in on the editorial side), I got to help with not one, but TWO photo shoots. The first was very fun, bringing together shelter staff members from the Operations, Development, and Community Programs departments to pose as participants in one of our Pet First Aid & CPR classes (another Community Programs offering) along with Dr. Simuel Hampton, one of our on-site veterinarians who also facilitates the program. The second was an off-site photo shoot with one of the Society’s most generous donors, Steve Parenti, and his dog Peanuts. Steve and Peanuts are known around their neighborhood for taking daily drives in one of his two vintage muscle cars. For this shoot, a close friend of my family, who is herself a budding photographer looking to pump up her résumé. I’m sure you can imagine how fun it was to oversee a photography session that featured pictures of a cute dachshund-mix sitting in a cool old car.

I think it’s fair to say that August was a pretty fun month!

Sarah Williams, The Heart and Soul of Humane Education

Hi! My name is Sarah Williams, and I’m a Humane Education Specialist at The Anti-Cruelty Society. Here at the shelter, I help co-facilitate our anti-violence after school program for teens, deliver animal welfare-related presentations to people of all ages, help oversee our Youth-Led Badging & Teen Drop-In programs, and manage our YouTube channel. I also write a weekly blog on behalf of our resident cat, Guy, which you can check out by clicking here right meow.

What I love most about my job is knowing that I am making a difference in my community by helping pets and people. Having previously worked in the operations side of the Society, it’s inspiring to be instrumental on the prevention side of animal welfare. My job involves teaching people about respecting life, spaying/neutering, and pet care and safety. Many of the issues we face in animal welfare result from ignorance about these topics, which is why Humane Education is so important. I wake up every morning excited to come to work and find new and interesting ways to teach people how they can become part of our community of caring!

Aw rats! Sarah and her beloved pet, Tetra.

Aw rats! Sarah and her beloved pet, Tetra.

When I’m not talking about animals, wrangling teenagers, or pretending to be a cat on the internet, I like to enjoy one of my many hobbies: playing video games, board games, or tabletop RPGs; training my cat to do tricks (it works, I swear!); cuddling my pet rat; practicing the Japanese martial art of Aikido; going camping or hiking; trying new and interesting craft beers; and sampling gourmet burgers around Chicago.