Hearts and Paws: It’s Never too Late to Give Back

by Amy McGarry

Amy McGarry

Many people would agree that the definition of a life well-lived includes knowing you’ve made a positive impact on your world. Many would also agree that the key to happiness is feeling like you’re making the world a better place.

But what happens when the challenges of aging intervene? Strokes can lead to paralysis. Dementia is all too common in the elderly population. With such challenges, how does one still contribute to one’s community?

If you’re one of the amazing volunteers at Sullivan Park Care Center, a facility some might call a “nursing home,” despite your challenges, you take part in the “Hearts and Paws” program and provide loving care to senior shelter dogs in need of fostering.

The “Hearts and Paws” fostering program is a partnership between SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. and Sullivan Park Care Center, placing senior shelter dogs awaiting adoption in the loving care of residents.

SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. is an animal adoption center that handles over 700 animals per month, including strays and owner turn-ins. SpokAnimal is “passionately dedicated to the placement, protection, and health of animals.”

Ed Minzes takes Gretchen for a walk.

I spoke with Sullivan Park Care Center resident and Adoption Coordinator Patty Mitchell to learn how the “Hearts and Paws” program works. More importantly, I was to learn the incredibly positive impact that caring for the dogs has on the resident participants.

“These are people who are not going to let their challenges stop them from doing good. They want to contribute. They want to give back. They know this is their last opportunity.”

The residents at this skilled nursing center faces challenges ranging from amputations to Parkinson’s to vision impairment. Many are wheelchair bound. But clearly, these volunteers have as much to offer as anyone.

I asked Patty how the fostering program got started.

“We were bored. We got tired of playing the same games at the care center. We weren’t feeling any satisfaction.”

While Patty gives kudos to the center’s administrator who gave the green light for “Hearts and Paws,” he insists the program is 100 percent managed by the residents with no staff involved. Recognizing the value of “Hearts and Paws” on the residents’ quality of life, he vehemently hopes other skilled nursing centers will follow with their own fostering programs and help find forever homes for dogs in need.

As the Adoption Coordinator, Patty has a huge job. She is the liaison between SpokAnimal and Sullivan Park Care Center. She finds the right furry fit for the residents, schedules meetings times, and manages all of the paperwork.

The plan has been to foster one dog at a time. Patty creates a rigid schedule for resident “helpers” to follow for feeding, watering, walking, socializing, and of course, pottying. This schedule continues all day long until 10:00 pm when residents and dogs get to rest.

The goal of all animal fostering programs is adoption—to find that forever home for the animal. Such is the case with “Hearts and Paws” which is already experiencing great success. In the two months since the program started, “Hearts and Paws” has saved four senior dogs by finding them homes.

In honor of their success, the center has created a Wall of Fame featuring photos of the saved dogs. The plan is to add two more photos every month. They hope to have 25 photos by the end of their first year. The outlook is promising.

With such success fostering one dog at a time, Patty and her helpers are stepping up their game with the arrivals of 13-year-old Snoopy and 12-year-old Tuffy. Despite the fact that Snoopy is a large, gentle, Labrador Retriever and Tuffy is a tiny, “tough,” alpha Chihuahua, the two are inseparably bonded, requiring they be fostered as a pair.

“They are so cute and so well-mannered and well-trained. They follow each other around and sleep together.” says Patty. “But tiny Tuffy insists on sleeping on the big dog bed, leaving the smaller space for the big Snoopy.”

So far, the only challenge in managing the pair is that Tuffy is so small he was able to escape through the spaces in the pen. Oops!

“It’s a learning experience. We’re still figuring it out as we go.”

Patty says the only previous experience she has for this work is her love for pets.

“The dogs are smart. They let you know what they need.”

Of course, SpokAnimal provides training to the helpers as part of their fostering program. All the volunteers sign a pledge as a promise to their commitment. SpokAnimal also provides the food for animals in foster care.

While it’s unusual for residents of a skilled nursing center to independently take on a project like “Hearts and Paws,” it’s proof that it’s not only possible, but empowering. Residents overcome great obstacles in order to make a difference in these dogs’ lives, and in extension, benefit the community. In return, residents feel capable, worthwhile, and significant. Ideally, skilled nursing centers all around the country will follow this example and spread the love exponentially.

To see photos and videos of the “Hearts and Paws” volunteers in action, visit the SpokAnimal Hearts and Paws FaceBook page at: www.facebook.com/SpokAnimal.

The “Hearts and Paws” program was also featured on a KREM2 news segment on April 14, 2022.
If you or someone you know is interested in saving the life of a senior dog and providing it a home, please call the Adoption Hotline at 509-789-7857.

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