Everyones’ Best Friend — Paws for a Cause

Leaping dogs and cats painted in brilliant colors welcome guests into the cozy office space of Pets Are Wonderful Support Los Angeles (PAWS/LA). Once inside, snapshots of clients’ furry companions hang on staff members’ bulletin boards. And throughout the building, which is tucked away on a gray, downtown L.A. street, animal art is for sale with proceeds going towards the care and feeding of pets that belong to the city’s sick and elderly.

In 1989, founder Nadia Sutton was inspired to create the organization as a friend laid in his hospital bed, dying of complications related to AIDS.

“Sobbing in my arms, Richard told me his family had given his cat, Boo-Boo, away.” The loss of his pet had thrust Sutton’s friend into a deep depression. “Now I have no reason to get better and go home,” he told her.

“Needless to say, we got Boo-Boo back, and he and Richard spent six happy months together.”

PAWS/LA, which initially served two clients, has grown over the last 20-plus years to service upwards of 1,800 people, and over 2,000 companion animals throughout Los Angeles County.

City and state grants, along with individual and corporate donations, enable PAWS/LA to serve two groups of people: those with life-threatening illnesses, and senior citizens with modest incomes. For some, whose lives have become isolated, a pet may be their only friend.

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“My cat saved my life,” said one PAWS/LA volunteer and client who has AIDS, and preferred not to give his name. He has been HIV positive for more than two decades years. “My cat makes me think about something other than my illness, because I focus on his needs.”

Raymond Baltazar, a PAWS LA volunteer/outreach coordinator, greets me with a smile. Last year, he left corporate America, where he worked in the fashion industry, to join PAWS LA. “We’re making a big difference in our clients’ lives,” he says as he gives me a tour of the facility. “We keep friends together.”

Two years ago the nonprofit relocated from a tiny, West Hollywood office, to a larger downtown location, making it more centrally located, and capable of housing a range of donated supplies.

During PAWS/LA’s food drives, clients can come and pick up dry and canned food and other necessities for their pets. Behind the office space is a small warehouse where goods are stacked from floor to ceiling. Toys, beds, travel kennels, kitty litter, and treats are donated by such companies as Petco Foundation, Pedigree, Natural Foods and Target. Approximately $200,000 worth of pet food is contributed annually.

Other non-profits often lend a hand as well. Last year, PAWS/LA partnered with the Exceptional Children’s Foundation (ECF), which provides services such as recreational activities, work training and supported employment to children and adults with developmental, learning and emotional disabilities.

During a drive, volunteers, including ECF men and women, form an assembly line to give out goods and pet food, which is portioned into plastic bags for client pick-up.

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In addition to offering supplies, the organization provides dog-walking services; grooming and veterinary care; emergency-foster care; transportation as needed; and housing-rights advocacy for animal guardians with a disability.

“Our clients often come in tired, worried and stressed,” says Scott Dunlevie, client-services coordinator, who joined PAWS/LA after retiring from the phone company. They may have faced the prospect of finding a new home for an animal, which meant losing a trusted friend. “It’s unbelievable how good it feels to rid them of those feelings and give them hope,” he said.

Omar Olivares, client-services assistant, adds that PAWS/LA is often a person’s “lifeline.”

Both the Journal of American Geriatrics Society and the Journal of Clinical Nursing assert that senior citizens who live with pets are more active, more healthy, and more content.

Dr. Allen Schoen, veterinary-medicine practitioner, supports that theory. In his book, Love, Miracles and Animal Healing, he writes, “We emit energetic signals related to our deepest feelings that are picked up by those around us—especially our pets.”

Animals are believed to sense humans’ emotional needs and respond. The proof is in the patient: Whether a person is young or old, sick or the picture of health, a warm relationship with a pet lifts their spirits and, really, isn’t that what friends are for?

by Jamie Freiburghouse (published in ABILITY Magazine 2011)


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