It was hard to peel 8-year-olds Raylee and Paelynn Stark, and their 4-year-old brother Graham, away from a playful young pup named Ivy. They relished in a game of fetch, running and receiving hugs and kisses from the sweet canine on an April afternoon in the fenced-in yard behind the Jefferson City Animal Shelter.
As the children bonded with Ivy, their mother, Dodi, watched in delight and chatted with shelter volunteer Joe Jerek about the dog and adopting animals from the city-ran facility. As a registered volunteer, Jerek does whatever needs to be done at the shelter, but one of his favorite things is connecting animals to new owners, finding them a forever home.
“They live in the present, so they don’t have a concept of ‘I’ll go home tomorrow or what happened yesterday?’ For you to spend that time with them means the world to these animals. I’m going to go to sleep tonight knowing my precious little Ivy girl just had a great day,” Jerek said, finding out Ivy was adopted later that afternoon. “When you make that love connection between an animal and person, it is the best feeling in the world. You see that love.”
There have been close to 1,000 people that have taken the volunteer orientation class since the new shelter building opened about six years ago, but less than 50 regularly volunteer at the shelter like Jerek. Karen Jennings, shelter/animal control supervisor for about 14 years, said many individuals want to come in and love on the pets, but registered volunteers first apply, go through orientation, serve at least 10 hours and then are able to do additional tasks such as take the dogs on walks.
“If anyone wants to come in and simply socialize with the animals, they are welcome to come in between noon-4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Otherwise if they want to walk the dogs on the Greenway Trail or things like that, they must be a registered volunteer,” she said. “The more I see them and interact with them and see how much they want to volunteer, I will ask them to do more things like bathing the dogs, sitting with the scared dogs, etc. … You need to be trustworthy with our animals and mainly have a great heart for what we do.”
That compassion is what drives the volunteers to do any job during their service time whether it is cleaning the dogs’ kennels, feeding, bathing, doing laundry, taking them out for walks, run or play time, or socialization for adoption. The staff sees the value in what each volunteer contributes to the shelter and, more importantly, the life of each animal.
“They really become our eyes and ears to those animals. We can see them in a kennel, but until you get them on a walk, you don’t know if they are limping or have loose stool. We know more about them with the help of our volunteers,” Jennings said.
Having several dogs throughout her life, Donna Ponder acquired her most recent pets, Casper and Gracie, through the shelter. When she retired after 23 years at the Missouri Department of Transportation, she knew she wanted to give back to the shelter by volunteering. For the last three years, she serves at the shelter about three to four times a week.
“If I miss a day, I miss the dogs. I think about the dogs so much. How they need us. I don’t get real upset if they have been here a longer time because I feel the right person hasn’t come or they haven’t met them yet. I talk to the dogs and tell them that,” she said with a smile.
Many volunteers first got their start at the shelter by serving alongside their children. After the kids grew up and moved out, the parents got hooked and now are avid volunteers like Nancy Akerley and Sabine Shamet, both who come to the shelter for a few hours about five times a week.
Exercising the dogs is one of their favorite activities. Shamet, a 10-year shelter volunteer originally from Germany, loves filling her day with fitness before working with troubled teenagers in the evening.
Part of that regiment is running and even taking bike rides with dogs along the Greenway Trail.
“Exercise is good for dogs and people. They are more adoptable because they are less hyper. … If they are super shy, I sit there and let them sniff me first. If they are super hyper, we go for an extra run,” she said.
Like Shamet, Akerley teaches the dogs patience and basic manners and commands while out walking them.
“Some dogs never had leash experience before so we have to teach them how to walk on a leash,” she said. “Some dogs you have to sit with for awhile before you get them to go out with you. But when you get them to, it is very rewarding.”
Kim Marquis enjoys the experiences of volunteering at the shelter on Tuesdays, but she served the facility in a different volunteering capacity for five years previously. As the foster care coordinator, Marquis was the main point of contact for about 25 to 30 foster families who raised kittens and puppies for about four to five weeks or until they reached 2 pounds.
“I learned a lot about medical stuff, how to care for them, what to do if we had a new (cat) mom that wasn’t being a good mom, etc. It was 24-7, 365 days a year,” she said. Shamet, Akerley and Ponder all have been foster parents to puppies and kittens, with the latter hitting a high need for foster families during July and August. Marquis said about 25 to 30 shelter volunteer families have fostered 1,300-1,500 kittens and puppies during a five-year span, averaging about 250-300 of those animals a year.
“You have to love that animal like it is yours. It is difficult bringing them back in to be adopted out, but you also know when you see ‘fostered’ on a tag, it was in a good home, probably with other animals and kids, is potty trained,” she said.
“These foster families give so much of themselves and their daily lives. … When you get 3-day-old puppies or kittens in and get to bottle feed them and care for them, you hold onto them in your heart forever.”
For Judy Volmert and her daughter Megan volunteering at the shelter has become a daily part of their routine. Coming six times a week after Megan gets out of school and even more during the summer, the pair loves taking care of all the animals, especially the dogs that might get looked over.
“Megan wanted to connect with pit bulls. We had never had that experience before. I was leery, but it was the first dog she would pick out to walk. A lot of people would skip over them when adopting,” Volmert said. “That is one dog in here that I have learned to really love. They are the sweetest most loving dogs.”
Akerley agrees that some dogs and cats may be misunderstood upon first impression. She often writes something up to put on their cage, encouraging people to give them a chance.
“The older dogs and some of the very energetic younger dogs have a hard time. Some people have a tunnel vision about what they are looking for, and really it is the temperament of the dog that is most important over the appearance,” she said. “Instead of just taking a dog that looks cute, I would love for them to spend some time with it. Adopt them if they are really compatible with you.”
As all the volunteers stress, it is not important if they spend six days a week or one day a month. It all counts in the betterment of the animal’s life.
“When you come in and volunteer, you are saving lives. When Donna and Sabine walk or run the dogs, it keeps up the dogs’ mental stability. The foster families that take in these animals, not only are they saving the life of the animal they took in but they are making room for another animal here,” Marquis said. “It all literally saves lives.”
For more information about volunteering, donating items or adopting from the Jefferson City Animal Shelter, call 573-634-6429 or visit JeffersonCityMo.Gov/Government/Animal_Control/shelter-Information.php or on Facebook. Help the shelter through fundraising and other community efforts by visiting the Friends of the Jefferson City Animal Shelter website at FriendsofJCAS.org.
Why she likes the shelter: “It is a need in the community first. It is also nice that they are so welcoming to people that just want to come in and visit with the animals.”
Why he loves volunteering: “Some of the best days I have at the shelter are the worst days I’m having in life. If work is stressful or you are having a bad day, you come down here and you cannot help but just be reinvigorated. It is pure love. … It is great therapy for everybody.”
Why volunteer? “People think they would come in, love them all and never be able to give them up. If you don’t give them back, you can’t continue. If you don’t fall in love, you are not good at it. Come in and volunteer, and you do get to play with puppies and kittens.”
What the animals need most: “The main thing they need is just lots and lots of love. That is what we all try to do at the shelter.”
What she loves about the shelter: “The staff here is really hard working, dedicated and fun-loving. They have a cool positive energy. Karen does a great job running it; she is a really sweet person. Dr. Jessica Thiele is really easy to talk to to. The shelter is a positive thing for the whole community.”
Judy and Megan Volmert
Service leads to career for Megan: “I would like to be a vet. This is introducing me to how dogs react in certain situations. They are all unique. It takes time to get to know them. When you do it is worth it.”