In 2009, Rachel Cohen, then a 19 year old Penn student, started volunteering at the PAWS animal shelter in Gray’s Ferry. As she walked across the University Avenue Bridge from campus, she saw many homeless teens taking shelter there and noticed that they often clung to a dog as a source of comfort. She was shocked and saddened by what she saw but thought about that bond and the fact that the shelter was always short of help to care for the animals and decided to put together something that would bring these two marginalized groups together to help both. She came up with the idea to take an activity homeless teens seemed to love – caring for animals – and develop a program to reach and teach homeless and disadvantaged youth what they need to know to function in the adult world. Hand2Paw was born with a volunteer program in 2009 and we have been providing paid internships to disadvantaged youth since 2011.
We have grown so much since our beginnings – in the beginning, we were all volunteer-led, and the youth participants served as volunteers too. We have since built capacity over the years, so that now we have a skilled staff supervising paid interns. The program has grown and changed over the years. Originally, shelter staff provided the on site supervision during the course of the internships. After a few years, we realized that shelter staff, themselves working for underfunded nonprofits, did not really have the time or expertise to provide the kind of training and supervision that this population required. So, we raised more money to hire our own staff and now have one full-time program director and two paid part-time supervisors. Together, our staff has developed a curriculum to ensure that our interns spend their time with us developing a skill set that will serve as a steppingstone to permanent employment.