Keirstin

Though I’m forty-six years old, and have experienced a fair amount of adventure in my life, I am continually surprised by how scary it can still be to put myself out on even the sturdiest, lowest limb sometimes.

Life takes a fair amount of fearlessness, even for the little things, like taking a bus in a strange city for the first time or going to a cocktail party when you don’t know a soul.

To accomplish the big things, like trying to wipe out tuberculosis in Haiti or save thousands of people from a burning high rise, takes the kind of bravery that most of us will never know, because the majority of us dwell somewhere in the middle, equipped with more courage than it takes to order off a menu that is entirely in Chinese, but less than it takes to walk into combat.

What motivates a person, I’ve come to realize, to march through fear is the belief that the mission is so important that without our own individual sacrifice or intervention something very precious would be lost.

When you meet an adult who lives this, you are inspired. When you meet a child who does, you are awed.

Earlier this year I received an email from a person named Keirstin who wanted me to know about a shelter called Pet Friends. A volunteer for the shelter, she was enthusiastic about WearWoof and wanted to find out how to get Pet Friends – an organization she was clearly passionate about – involved in WearWoof’s mission. I replied to her inquiry right away, we exchanged a few emails, and then came a surprise.

“I want to thank you for writing back to my daughter,” read the email. “She is only thirteen and you are the first person to answer one of her letters.”

Thirteen! I was intrigued and right away knew that I wanted to meet this young lady and find out how I could help her to get her message out to the public. Clearly she understood that in order for Pet Friends to accomplish its mission people needed to know about their wonderful work.

I’d recently written a blog article about Dr. Karen Phillips, the founder of Hope Haven Farm Sanctuary. Could I do the same for Keirstin?

On a cold Sunday afternoon, with my husband – dutiful WearWoof photographer – in tow, I took a drive out to Irwin to find out.

Since January, I’ve visited numerous Shelter and Rescue Partners where they do their work, and have been amazed by how different each of them are in their size, resources, structure and budget. A potential WearWoof sponsor asked me recently what my services would be to our Shelter and Rescue Partners. The answer I gave him was that there is no one-size-fits-all way to approach their needs. The first step, I said, was to understand them all as individual organizations with specific goals and challenges, and then to help them on a level that is not only doable for WearWoof but meaningful to their unique needs.

Pet Friends is located off Route 30, not far from the Turnpike, and is situated on a woodsy chunk property owned by a dog groomer. They rent one of the buildings on the property, a large hall and several kennels – enough to hold about ten dogs.

Lisa Smith, Keirstin’s mother and a Pet Friends volunteer, greeted us and introduced us to Vickie Kasa, another volunteer who’d come along to meet us and answer our questions. Keirstin was several feet away, sweeping the floor, regarding us through her thick curtain of brown hair with curiosity and apprehension.

“She’s a little shy,” Lisa explained. “But she’s so excited that you are here.”

I sat down at a table while Vickie and Lisa stood and gave us an overview of Pet Friends, and Keirstin, dressed in a Pet Friends sweatshirt that matched her solemn, blue-green eyes, finished her sweeping. They told us about the cats who are available for adoption at the local Petsmarts and the various fundraising events that Pet Friends puts on. The talked about Pet Friends’ vision for the future and the services they perform for the community.

Eventually Lisa coaxed Keirstin over, and she sat down across from me, her small smile betraying her excitement and nervousness. A seventh grader at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, she’d been volunteering with Pet Friends for the past year.

“How long have you been rescuing animals?” I asked her, hoping to get her to open up.

She began to talk, her mom filling in the gaps. Keirstin had always loved animals, but a few years ago she’d been visiting her grandmother at her camp near Donegal when she noticed there were a number of feral cats with kittens living around the camp, under trailers. Though she knew very little about animal rescue, Keirstin nevertheless immediately understood that if the kittens remained there they would have very short, difficult lives. She was determined to rescue them.

“We called everywhere,” Lisa said. “All over the state, even Ohio. We were supposed to go home but Keirstin wouldn’t go – she didn’t want to leave the kittens until we could catch them and find them homes. But no one could take them. We ended up staying three weeks!”

Keirstin knew that she was their best chance at survival. Taking them to an open door shelter was out of the question for her. Feral born kittens stand a better chance of getting adopted than their mothers, but she wasn’t willing to take any chances. Keirstin implored her mother to let them stay and take care of the kittens until they could find a safe place that would take them in.

What Keirstin had experienced that summer was that life-changing moment every animal rescuer experiences, the moment when you know there is no turning back: Once you have seen an animal in crisis, you can’t un-see it. You can’t walk away and do nothing.

She dutifully fed the kittens three times a day as she and her mother worked to find shelters willing to take them in. It was a lesson for Keirstin in the realities that every animal welfare professional knows when it comes to the feral cat problem. She wasn’t willing to give up, however, and eventually, Keirstin was able to rescue five of the kittens and relocate them to Pet Friends, including Lucy, a little white female with a smudgy gray-patched nose.

Keirstin is a remarkable kid. After her experience rescuing the kittens she knew that she couldn’t just ignore the problem of homeless pets, and with the support of her family she channeled her desire to save these lives into action. While she dreams of a day when she will have her own no-kill shelter and rescue unwanted and abandoned dogs and cats, she fills her free time now caring for as many dogs and cats as she can.

She can’t bear the thought of pets without a loving home. “I think people should step up and take care of their pets,” she told me. “And if they see a homeless pet walking the streets, take them in and give them a home or try to get them into a foster home or no-kill shelter.”

After all, it’s what she would do, herself. “No matter how healthy they look, they’re not fully healthy without a home and a family to care for them.”

Her own first pet is a cat named Elmo she rescued from a horse farm back in 2009. Even at age nine, she stepped up to the challenge of making a commitment to an animal. When her dad needed convincing to let her keep Elmo, she bargained with him that she would pay for everything that Elmo needed, using her birthday money to buy the supplies required to keep a cat.

Keirstin is keenly aware of the financial reality of caring for homeless animals. She is creative and entrepreneurial, pitching in at fundraisers like the Calendar Party and making pens to sell at events. Her current project is making pillows – the money she raises selling them she plans to give to Pet Friends. And she reached out to me during the WearWoof Facebook Challenge, hoping she could win money for her beloved shelter.

“Do any of your friends volunteer for shelters?” I asked her.

She shook her head, eyeing my husband as he surreptitiously tried to snap pictures of her.

We talk about her own pets. “I love being with my four-legged friends,” she told me, referring to Elmo, Cookie, Monkey, Sesame and Warrior, her five cats. When she’s not with them she’s feeding strays, playing with the shelter dogs, and helping to train dogs at the classes held at Pet Friends. “Why not be with the ones that don’t have a family yet?”

As we talked, my mind raced with ideas, ways to help Keirstin and Pet Friends in their mission, to broaden their reach and to save more animals. Last year they were able to place about sixty homeless dogs, most of which came from animal control and owner surrenders. The adoption rate for cats in their care was slightly higher – the cats for the most part in Petsmarts or fosters. Pet Friends is a no-kill shelter, and limited in the number of animals they can rescue by their kennel space for dogs and availability of foster homes and cage space at Petsmart for cats.

I get the feeling that Keirstin’s mind races a lot, too. Her mom shows me a pic of Keirstin wrapped around a tree in a Garfield costume that she wore for National Pet Adoption Weekend. She seems up for any opportunity to help get the word out about Pet Friends, dressing as an elf for Petsmart holiday pet photo events and helping to plan Calendar Parties and participating in community events like Penn Trafford Days. Indeed, it’s that desire to tell the world about Pet Friends that leads her to write letters to radio stations and newspapers. I vowed to help her make those connections. “But,” I told her, wanting to prepare her for what I hoped would soon be an onslaught of questions about her shelter, “You have to work on your elevator speech.”

I explained that an elevator speech is a thirty-second to a minute long practiced description about something – in her case, Pet Friends.

“Imagine,” my husband added, “that you are in an elevator with someone and they ask you about Pet Friends. You only have about a minute to explain it to someone and get them interested in helping. What do you say?”

Keirstin nodded thoughtfully. It is scary to talk to new adults, even people she is so happy to meet, people she knows love animals, too, and will find a way to help. She understands that she must be the voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.

We brought out BJ, a happy, energetic young border collie mix for some photos with Keirstin. BJ was thrilled with his cage break and bounded around enthusiastically, pushing his nose into our hips and hands, looking for treats. He’s a love bug and stretched up to embrace me, wrapping his paws around me in a bear hug.

As petite as Keirstin is, and as shy as she is answering my questions, with BJ she exudes a quiet, steady confidence, and he immediately snapped to attention under her gaze. He watched her intently and then slammed his bottom to the ground in his best sit, patiently awaiting his reward.

Keirstin is modest about her dog training skills. When I asked her how she learned how to train dogs, she shrugged. I interpreted this to mean that for her, working with animals just comes naturally, from within.

She is one of thirty or so dedicated volunteers – Vickie, and Keirstin’s mother, Lisa, are two of the other regulars. They walk and care for the shelter dogs, plan and set up events, take care of the cats at Petsmart, and foster animals in their homes. Pet Friends is a welcoming, open organization. They encourage anyone who is interested in learning about their work to attend their monthly board meetings. In June of this year they will celebrate their tenth year taking in homeless animals.

Like most shelters and rescues, Pet Friends believes that spay/neuter programs are the key to ending the homeless pet problem. Being able to offer low-cost spay/neuter programs to the public is an ongoing goal, and they have received a grant that allows them to provide those discounted services through a local veterinarian to people who meet the income qualifications.

It’s a humble, big-hearted organization doing their best to care for dogs and cats in need, and I’m happy to have met these wonderful people.

As we prepare to leave, extra sugar cookies are packed into boxes for us, and I promise to send along the article as soon as it’s finished so that Lisa and Keirstin can have a look at it and make sure I’ve gotten the details right.

In the car on the way home, I reflect upon our visit, and my husband and I remark about how sweet and inspiring Keirstin is, and how proud her family must be of her. In her shyness is tremendous bravery: It doesn’t stop her from doing. I consider my own childhood and how I often hid from new things and people, afraid of ridicule and rejection. My thirteen year old self admires her as much as my forty-six year old self does.

“It may take some time,” I’d warned her, talking about the process of establishing the kind of media and other relationships necessary to get the kind of publicity she wants for Pet Friends. “But don’t give up. You are on the right track.”

But if Keirstin is anything like me, she’s impatient. Every day animals die anonymously in shelters, their lives discarded. In fact, every eight seconds a dog or cat is euthanized, many of them healthy, adoptable, even once loved. Waiting for funding, support and recognition for the heroic work of saving the lives of our companion animals can create despondency, even in the most optimistic among us. Keirstin is young, and I hope that she will stick with this sometimes heartbreaking work, that she will stay strong for the animals who need her the most, even when it seems hopeless, like no one in the world cares or is listening.

By the time I get home, I’ve already received a sincere thank-you email from her. I smile, feeling proud and happy for her. This kid is going to make a difference, I think. Lucky is the homeless pet who crosses her determined path.

Pet Friends, Inc is a 501c3 non-profit organization. If you would like to know more about Pet Friends, Inc of Irwin, please call (724) 863-7722, visit their web page at www.pet-friendsinc.com or like them on Facebook @pet-friends. You can become a Pet Friends member by donating $20, which entitles you to board membership and voting in their May election. Visit their Pet Finder page to see their adoptable cats and dogs. Please consider donating $10 to the WearWoof First Friday Benefit for Pet Friends on Friday, March 8, at www.wearwoof.org/donate.