DID WHAT: When the pandemic amplified issues faced by a community’s residents, Gateway Pet Guardians (GPG) hired a solution-oriented Community Support Manager with a background in social work.
WHY: The restrictions imposed by the pandemic necessitated a stronger focus on identifying and navigating not just pets’ needs, but the needs of their human families.
In this interview, Jill Henke, Director of Community Programming at GPG, and Katie Anderson, MSW, Community Support Manager, tell us how their organization is developing innovative ideas and programs to navigate human welfare issues to increase the quality of life for pets and people alike. Their work helps pets stay in homes and out of the shelter.
Jill has also served as GPG’s Program Director and Development Director and has a background in corporate sales. She’s been in animal welfare since 2006 and has fostered over 300 dogs. Katie’s background as a social worker is rooted in child welfare and case management. She also has experience providing a range of support for families in crisis.
ASPCApro: What prompted you to hire a Community Support Manager?
Henke: While interacting with our clients during COVID-19, our staff encountered issues like mental illness, substance abuse, and the harsh effects of generational poverty—problems we felt ill-equipped to navigate. To address the needs of our community’s pets and their families, we considered teaming up with local human service providers. For example, if people need food for their pets, it’s very likely they would benefit from receiving food for themselves as well, so offering our resources to human food pantries seemed to make sense.
ASPCApro: What are Katie’s specific duties?
Henke: Katie absorbed the oversight of GPG’s Pet Food Pantry and our partnerships with human food pantries, including our local senior center and Food On The Move - St. Louis Area Foodbank. We park our vehicle at their locations, distribute pet food, and explain our services to potential clients.
Katie’s outreach includes canvassing, following up with clinic clients, delivering supplies to the homebound, posting lost/found pet flyers, and visiting pet owners to offer support so they don't have to relinquish their pets (intake diversion). She manages our first-ever “social work practicum student” who collects information about private landlords in our community. Our goal is to build relationships with these landlords in hopes they will make their properties pet-friendly. Two-thirds of our community are renters and finding pet-friendly housing can be a giant challenge.
ASPCApro: What is Katie bringing to the table that you haven’t done before?
Henke: Katie spearheaded our recent launch of “Payment Plans,” a program that allows clients who receive care for their pets to pay off their bills over time, without credit checks or credit reporting. She is also developing and implementing a community needs assessment, which is very exciting. We utilize data and make assumptions based on conversations with clients as to what specific programs and services are needed to create a thriving pet welfare community, but we want to formalize that process and dig deeper. Katie will play a large role overseeing our Temporary Care/Emergency Boarding program. On a very limited basis, we have offered temporary housing for pets but with little success in reuniting them with their families after a crisis like a house fire or eviction. We’re confident with Katie managing this program that she will keep open the lines of communication with our clients and the agencies they utilize to overcome their crises, leading to a much higher success rate in the future.
We must get the root of the issues, many of which fall in line with what a social worker does.
ASPCApro: How can other shelters go about hiring such a person? Where can they get funds?
Henke: Every organization should take a long, hard look at its budget. We should be investing more money in staff who can help keep pets out of shelters and/or help pets get back home, vs. funding positions focused on intake, animal care, and adoption. We must get the root of the issues, many of which fall in line with what a social worker does. The reality is that we need more donors to fund programs like free/low-cost pet food, low-cost/accessible veterinary care, and temporary boarding, all of which can keep pets and families together, particularly low-income families.
ASPCApro: How do you promote the Community Support Manager’s services?
Henke: We promote our programs in a variety of ways, including through our Welcome Center, our 54,000-square-foot Pet Resource Center—the largest in the region—as well as flyers, local newspaper ads, dedicated text message blasts, and the resources page on our website.
ASPCApro: What impact is this role having on your clients, and has this helped reduce your intake?
Anderson: In addition to building on and deepening existing relationships, this role allows us to create new alliances in the community and establish new and meaningful rapports with clients. This type of collaboration involves meeting clients where they are, taking time to understand the environment in which they live, and establishing trust with regular and consistent contact. All of this helps us learn what kind of support they need to care for their pets and the barriers that exist when navigating animal welfare and human services systems. We’re learning how to intervene more efficiently when challenges arise, which in turn helps reduce intake and widen our impact.
ASPCApro: What kind of feedback are you getting from the community?
Anderson: The community really appreciates our services. I like speaking with families in person, like at our pet food pantry locations. Many of these clients might not otherwise come to us, so taking resources to their neighborhoods assures they get to those who need them. We’ve heard from other animal welfare professionals interested in integrating a social worker into their organization, and we hope this will help them elevate the work they are doing and further their mission.
ASPCApro: Have you made any adjustments to the role since you started?
Anderson: As Jill mentioned, we recently had our first social work practicum student from a local university join our team. She is completing her undergraduate practicum with us, which is one of the last steps before obtaining a social work degree. She and I are working closely together on various projects like building out housing resources, carrying out a community needs assessment, compiling and interpreting data, and researching the connection between mental health and the human-animal bond.
ASPCApro: Is there anything you want to try but haven’t yet?
Anderson: I would love to improve our services for homebound clients who are unable to access our Pet Resource Center. Many have health issues, lack transportation, and face other challenges that keep them from coming to us. There’s been discussion about delivering pet food and other supplies when we transport people and their pets to vet appointments, for example. I'm also interested in a project that Human Animal Support Services (HASS) has been working on that involves outlining the ideal ecosystem for a community and then mapping the resources that are currently available. We could then determine what programs and services are already in place and identify where gaps exist. The resource map would be interactive and display information in a way that is easy to comprehend.