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Paws on the ground

A new Community Outreach program is building connections in Frogtown, changing perceptions about Animal Humane Society and delivering essential services to pets in one of the Twin Cities' most diverse neighborhoods.
 

BY ROSE MILLER

On an overcast Saturday in early August, Danielle Sanders stands at the entrance to Ryan Park in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul holding her 3-month-old terrier mix puppy, Duchess. Though it's only 7:15 a.m, the area is beginning to come alive with activity. The two watch, Duchess' small black ears alert, as Animal Humane Society volunteers and staff carry tables past the quiet swing sets, and assemble small tents on sun-scorched grass that will later host more than 300 pets and their owners.

Sanders and Duchess are the first in line for a wellness event that AHS is hosting in Frogtown. Sanders saw a flyer about free vaccinations and veterinary exams being offered to the pets of area residents, and came hours early to take advantage of this opportunity for her puppy to receive care. Later in the day, Duchess would also be registered for a free spay surgery by Kindest Cut at Melrose Animal Clinic.

In the past few months, AHS has hosted two community wellness clinics in Frogtown. Residents can bring their animals for free wellness exams, rabies shots, and other basic vaccinations, and sign them up for free spay/neuter surgery. More than 100 AHS employees and volunteers have staffed each clinic, vaccinating about 600 dogs and cats and signing up more than 90 pets for sterilization.

These events are just a small part of the work that a new Community Outreach team has been doing in the neighborhood and in other Twin Cities communities over the past two years.

Community Outreach became an organizational priority in 2011, when Animal Humane Society set out to determine which areas of the Twin Cities weren't using its services and why. "We decided it was important to go out into communities that historically haven't engaged with us to hear directly from them what they want and need from AHS," says Kathy Mock, chief government affairs and community engagement officer.

By analyzing organizational data and speaking with local animal welfare organizations such as St. Paul Animal Control, AHS identified three urban neighborhoods in the metro area under-utilizing AHS services: North Minneapolis, Frogtown, and East St. Paul. All three of these communities are low-income in comparison to the rest of the Twin Cities, with many residents born outside of the United States, high rates of foreclosures, and youth comprising the highest percentage of the population.

Outreach Coordinator Brianna Darling held focus groups and conducted interviews with neighborhood residents and leaders. She found that, while animal welfare problems differed slightly in each area, some of the most common were limited access to affordable pet care, aggressive dogs, cultural differences in animal care, and dogs and feral cats allowed to run loose.

According to Corrie Schueller, director of community engagement, Darling's research also shed light on the reasons community members weren't using AHS services. Most simply didn't know about AHS or the services offered, or thought AHS was the same as animal control. Residents also didn't realize that there were options at AHS available for those with low incomes. Another barrier was location, with residents unable to find bus routes to AHS shelters and unsure which taxi services accommodated animals. Many residents in these communities also had a perception of AHS that excluded them. "They had misconceptions of what Animal Humane Society was. They saw it as a place where only middle-class white people were welcome," says Schueller.

But Darling also witnessed the true love and compassion residents had for animals. "There is a deep bond between people and their pets. I heard many stories from community members about the commitment they have both for their pets as well as for dogs and cats that are living in the community without an identified owner," she says.

With all of this knowledge in hand, AHS began building a Community Outreach Program to deliver community-based services and provide resources for pet owners in the target communities. The Outreach team adapted strategies from Pets for Life, a successful model developed by the Humane Society of the United States that incorporates ongoing neighborhood outreach, community-wide events, and free or very low cost services for pets such as dog training, humane education, spay/neuter surgeries, and wellness care.

Grassroots outreach and direct connections with neighborhood residents became a main tenet of the team's strategy. Outreach staff and volunteers distribute free dog and cat food, work to connect people to resources they need for their pets, and talk about spay/neuter, providing information on low-cost sterilization and wellness services available through Kindest Cut.

The Outreach team's philosophy is that big change comes slowly through genuine connections with others. "Our outreach work is driven by a soft, gentle and nonjudgmental approach," says Darling. Starting with something small, such as giving people free pet food or supplies and showing genuine care for their pets, helps relationships begin to form. "Once the relationships are in place, the spay/neuter surgeries – and everything else – will follow," Darling adds.

Focus on Frogtown

The Outreach effort got a significant boost in 2013, when AHS received a PetSmart Charities grant to fund 1,175 free spay/neuter surgeries in the Frogtown neighborhood. AHS donors stepped in to fund free vaccinations with every surgery, and the AHS Outreach team now provides door-to-door transportation to and from Kindest Cut for Frogtown residents.

Bordered by University Avenue on the south, the Pierce Butler Railroad Tracks on the north, Lexington Parkway on the west and Rice Street on the east, Frogtown is among the most diverse communities in St. Paul. For more than 150 years, the neighborhood has been one of the first places immigrants settle in the city, in part because of the relatively inexpensive housing prices. In the 19th century, that mostly meant newcomers of German, Irish, or Scandinavian descent. But over the last three decades, the neighborhood has been strongly influenced by new waves of immigrants, particularly of Hmong, Latino and Somali heritage.

According to data collected by the American Community Survey, 33 percent of Frogtown residents are of Asian descent and 33 percent are African American. Over a quarter of residents were born outside the United States and almost half speak a language other than English at home. The area is economically and educationally varied as well.

Though they love their pets, the significant financial, social, and healthcare hardships that Frogtown residents face mean that animal care can't always be their first priority. "The reality is that 50 percent of the households in Frogtown have an annual household income of under $35,000. People are struggling to feed themselves, let alone their pets," says Schueller.

With the new grant, AHS expanded its outreach team and began canvassing more intensely in Frogtown. Developing relationships with social service agencies and community groups in the area has also helped AHS establish trust and create referral relationships, as well as build acceptance in the community.

Darling began staffing a table at Sharing Korner food shelf in 2012 and built a strong relationship with owner Mary Brent, who now lets her clients know about AHS services whenever possible.

Outreach volunteers also table at Loaves and Fishes, a meal program housed in the basement of Frogtown's Faith Lutheran Church. Beyond just a place for a warm meal, Loaves and Fishes is somewhere people come to learn about jobs and other resources available to them through Ramsey County and private organizations.

Before AHS' presence, site coordinator Diane Heitzinger had no resources to provide to pet owners struggling financially. "It was very nice when Animal Humane Society contacted us about coming down here because they can talk to the guests and see what their problems are and help them if they can," she says. Residents have come to rely on AHS for their animal care needs, Heitzinger adds.

Meeting residents through intensive boots-on-the-ground efforts, the team has formed relationships with residents who in turn have become some of AHS's greatest community ambassadors.

Francis Marvala has lived in Frogtown for two years with her daughter Sophia. A self-proclaimed animal lover, she has become a resource to neighbors and family alike, temporarily caring for friends' pets and then often taking them in permanently. Marvala has told many of her family and friends about the free spay/neuter surgeries available through AHS and Kindest Cut, and uses AHS services regularly herself in caring for her pets. "Sometimes feeding them is hard," she says. 'But Brianna has helped with fixing them and giving them their shots so they don't reproduce. And she's given me advice."

Another resident, Patricia Ohmans, was instrumental in connecting AHS with a local organization offering rescue and relief to homeless and endangered cats. Kindest Cut now sterilizes feral cats trapped by this organization every week, helping to control the feral cat population in Frogtown.

Relationships with community organizations and community members will be crucial in continuing the work in Frogtown and future target communities for the long term. "We want to make this work sustainable in each community," says Schueller. "Our goal is to work with community organizations, leaders, volunteers, and members to be able to keep this work going as we put our resources into other communities."

Looking ahead

As of October 1, more than 600 Frogtown animals had been spayed or neutered at Kindest Cut, and between the surgeries and the wellness events, close to 1,000 had been vaccinated. By mid-November, the team hopes to be doing 47 surgeries per week in Frogtown and East St. Paul.

The team has found that a persistent presence in the community over time gets people thinking more about how they care for their animals. Their goal is to make several small changes in the lives of animals, which eventually will create a large, community change for animals.

Darling stresses that the work is about empowerment and information-sharing for neighborhoods that otherwise lack a place to turn to for affordable pet supplies, training, and healthcare. "The point of our work isn't to take care of their animals ourselves. Right now as we are just trying to make it as easy as possible. Over time, we see the community carrying the torch. Access to resources and information will become embedded in the culture," she says.

The team already refers community members to AHS' humane education programs, behavior helpline, and Melrose Animal Clinic. In the future, they will be integrating community-based dog training classes and adoption events in Frogtown, and adding a dog trainer and veterinary technician to the canvassing team. They plan to visit more Pets for Life cities in 2015 to see the work others are doing and share their experiences implementing the program.

Work in Frogtown will continue, but the team's focus will eventually transition to East St. Paul and beyond. "We're excited to go out into more communities. There is a lot of need out there," says Mock.

The Community Outreach Program is a clear extension of the values that AHS embodies, from partnering with people, to leading responsibly with compassion, to being good to animals. Mock says, "We really have an opportunity to make a big difference on the whole continuum of an animal's life."

Francis and Sophia

Pooah

Frances Marvala adopted Pooah, a 5-week-old American Bulldog mix with a shiny white and grey coat, from a friend. "He was the only one that survived out of his litter."

A social butterfly, the puppy has a special bond with Marvala's 13-year-old daughter Sophia in particular. Sophia is a natural at obedience training, working with Pooah on sit, mouthy behavior, and crate-training. The two are obviously attached, and he follows her every move with rapt attention.

Marvala has been one of Animal Humane Society's biggest advocates in Frogtown and believes in the importance of spay/neuter, but her son had other ideas when it came to having Pooah fixed. "He wanted to mate Pooah with a female he had in mind to make money off of the puppies," she says. Marvala scheduled Pooah for a free neuter surgery at Kindest Cut anyway.

"It's good there's these types of events going on that the Humane Society can help with vaccinations and with preventing unwanted litters. To us people [of limited means], it helps us a lot," Marvala says.

Melissa

Duchess

If you looked up the word "energetic" in the dictionary, you might find a photo of a little Chihuahua mix named Duchess. The 1-year-old dog loves to play. Melissa Vaughn surprised her son Alijah with Duchess for his eleventh birthday, and she has been a welcome addition to the household.

Alijah has ADHD, and having Duchess helps him and the family to get outside and stay active, Melissa explains. "It's nice for our whole family to be outside and moving with her. We walk around Como Lake and go to Crosby Farm Park when we want to be in nature," she says.

A Frogtown resident for nearly two years, Melissa attends Century College and works part-time at a call center. The financial responsibility of caring for Duchess can be difficult at times. "Getting her shots and routine stuff can be expensive, and sterilization surgeries can cost hundreds of dollars," Melissa says.

After hearing about the free spay/neuter surgeries available to Frogtown residents, Melissa called and made an appointment for Duchess to be spayed. Though the idea of trusting Duchess with strangers was scary at first, Melissa is thankful that AHS could provide this option, because otherwise Duchess' surgery would have had to be delayed while the family saved enough to cover it. "The grant really helped us financially lift that burden. It's really just a blessing. She's like a kid to us."

Read more stories from the Winter 2015 Animal Tracks.