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Sunday, 16 August 2015 22:00

West Michigan Therapy Dogs makes changes to facilitate growth

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The Grand Rapids-based nonprofit West Michigan Therapy Dogs has grown considerably since its founding in 2001 and now works with about 380 volunteers and their pets. The group is adding its first paid employee to handle administrative duties.  The Grand Rapids-based nonprofit West Michigan Therapy Dogs has grown considerably since its founding in 2001 and now works with about 380 volunteers and their pets. The group is adding its first paid employee to handle administrative duties. COURTESY PHOTO

GRAND RAPIDS — West Michigan Therapy Dogs Inc. is a nonprofit organization that is about as grassroots as it gets.

Founded by two women in 2001 with a simple vision and powered by a working, volunteer board and an all-volunteer staff, the group’s members take clear pride in the organization’s growth, especially considering it operates without paid staff.

But that’s soon to change for the nonprofit that provides both animal-assisted activities and therapy.

After 14 years in operation, West Michigan Therapy Dogs is poised to break new ground by hiring one part-time employee to handle many of the group’s administrative duties.

Executive Director Heather Van Wormer said the volunteer staff was starting to become stretched thin, especially considering that West Michigan Therapy Dogs currently works with 380 volunteers and their pets, which will become closer to 400 with its most recent incoming class.

These volunteers are mobilized to coordinate the organization’s 143 different programs. A volunteer coordinator spearheads each program.

“It’s not a bad problem to have,” Van Wormer said.

The organization provides a range of services, everything from visiting patients in the hospital to operating its Ruff Readers program in which children have the opportunity to enhance their literary skills by reading books to dogs.

“It means that we have a lot of great volunteers and a lot of great partners that use our programs and want to continue those programs,” Van Wormer added.

CRITICAL MASS

Last fall, the nonprofit’s board of directors realized the organization would likely need to hire a part-time office coordinator, Van Wormer said.

“We need someone who can answer the phone, get the message and be that first line of defense for e-mails and forward them where they need to go,” she said. “With all the volunteers and dogs we have, there is a lot of record keeping. All the vaccination records need to be filed for each team.”

Van Wormer said that a couple of board members are working through the current backlog of administrative work and setting protocols and procedures for the incoming employee. By the end of August, the organization plans to advertise the open position internally to attract someone who knows the group “from the inside out,” and, if necessary, expand the search to a wider range of applicants, she said.

Another significant change West Michigan Therapy Dogs will be making is adding a new seat to its board of directors — one that will be occupied by a member who manages the program coordinators. Van Wormer said there are 25 new programs ready to go, they just need the manpower to facilitate them.

“We have some growing pains, but we will always be a volunteer organization,” Van Wormer said. “It’s a big part of our mission.”

AN UNEXPECTED WINDFALL

Van Wormer called West Michigan Therapy Dogs a fiscally conservative organization that has never put much emphasis on fundraising because it has been fortunate for the generosity of local people and organizations.

Aside from the conservative approach to finances, the group has very little overhead outside of maintaining a website and other relatively small administrative fees. Members must pay a $50 annual fee and provide any supplies their dogs might need for the program.

Even without actively seeking donations, the organization received word on July 21 that retailer PetSmart had awarded it a $10,000 grant as part of the PetSmart Gives Back initiative.

Sean Cook, the West Michigan district manager for PetSmart, explained that under the initiative, each district manager was allotted $5,000 and given the chance to nominate a local organization that makes a difference by using pets.

Not only did Cook nominate West Michigan Therapy Dogs for his $5,000 allotment, but he teamed up with the Detroit district to pool the money to create a $10,000 grant.

Van Wormer said the announcement was a complete surprise. Before the process, Cook didn’t even know about the organization.

“I’ll be honest: I initially heard about (West Michigan Therapy Dogs) through my wife,” Cook said. “I’m fairly new to PetSmart, and when I saw information about PetSmart Gives Back, I thought it was really exciting but I didn’t really have anyone off the top of my head.

My wife was telling me about (West Michigan Therapy Dogs) and how it’s a cool organization that is involved with places like Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, and the reading program. … I did a little research and got in touch with Heather.”

The timing couldn’t appear more perfect as West Michigan Therapy Dogs is receiving a sizable check right before signing its first paid employee. However, Van Wormer said she isn’t even sure what the money will be used for yet — and she won’t know until she can consult with the board.

“We already had the budget for an employee,” she said. “Obviously (the grant money) will go into the general fund, and part of it will go toward (the employee), but it’s not earmarked for that.”

Van Wormer is waiting to meet with her board to discuss how to put the money into action for the organization. The announcement of the PetSmart grant said the money would be used for everything from education and training purposes to volunteer outreach and to fund its many programs.

IN HIGH DEMAND

The growth of and demand for West Michigan Therapy Dogs is notable considering the fact that the organization doesn’t pound the pavement to recruit new volunteers, according to sources familiar with the organization.

“If anything, we’re just trying to manage what we have,” said Alice St. Clair, who has served on West Michigan Therapy Dogs’ board and has been a member of the organization since 2006.

St. Clair experiences the program’s popularity firsthand whenever she is out with her dog and people ask her how they can get involved with their pets.

The organization adjusted its model to help trim down the waiting list for the eight-week training classes, which it limits to around 15 dogs to avoid chaos. The group also developed a pre-screening process to weed out breeds that don’t typically do well in certain environments.

“We have standards and the programs we visit have an expectation that our dogs will be well behaved,” St. Clair said. “We have to live up to that.”

In regards to West Michigan Therapy Dogs’ programs, St. Clair said they are popular because they are effective.

“So many professionals recognize (our programs) as a benefit and work it into their programming,” she said. “By all means, that’s why we’ve grown and that’s why facilities ask for us — we are making a difference.”

 

Read 2658 times Last modified on Tuesday, 18 August 2015 16:38
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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