“Out of challenge comes great opportunity” has been the guiding principle for Hand in Paw as it navigates changes in operations due to COVID-19. Many nonprofits have had to shift the way they operate; some have closed their doors for good. The leadership and staff at Hand in Paw credit their success to a commitment to provide valuable programs and services and being willing to pivot.
Serving people of all ages across central Alabama, Hand in Paw provides animal-assisted therapy to help those in need deal with emotional and physical life challenges. Over the years, the organization has been supported by Alabama Power and the Alabama Power Foundation.
When Gov. Kay Ivey mandated statewide health safety measures in March 2020, the Hand in Paw team shifted to working remotely and was no longer able to conduct programs in public. However, it quickly mobilized to put together a careful and intentional strategy to move forward during the pandemic. With schools moving to virtual learning, that strategy included a focus by Hand in Paw on literacy through its Sit, Stay, Read program.
Sit, Stay, Read was designed for struggling readers and provides a nonjudgmental atmosphere where students read aloud to a furry friend, helping the students gain confidence and improve skills. In its move to a virtual format, the student and therapy team work from a copy of the same book and interact over Zoom or Google Meet. Students who achieve their reading milestones are rewarded with a “paw-tographed” book from their therapy dog.
Luisa MacPherson is a therapy team volunteer for Sit, Stay, Read with her dog Mooc and works with students who speak English as a second language.
“Sometimes students may feel anxious about reading out loud in a language they are not familiar with,” said MacPherson. “But when they read to Mooc, that anxiety seems to melt away. The continuing practice they get reading to Mooc during our virtual visits will undoubtedly have a positive impact on their reading proficiency.”
Kiersten Atkinson, Hand in Paw’s director of volunteers and programs, and her furry therapy partner Bhindi work virtually with Better Basics, a central Alabama literacy-focused nonprofit also supported by the Alabama Power Foundation, to tutor a second grade student each week. “Seeing ‘the light come on’ and being able to celebrate successes with him is incredible,” she said. “If you can just give kids the nudge they need and the support to stick with it, it helps tremendously to keep them interested and engaged.”
The Hand in Paw staff’s attitude toward change has proved that it’s never too late to learn “new tricks.” Staff, volunteers and even therapy dogs were more than willing to do the necessary training to learn how to conduct virtual therapy sessions. Before moving to virtual visits, teams recorded personalized videos for program partners to share with participants in schools, nursing homes and medical facilities. Therapy dogs were trained in new ways to engage and hold attention online equally as well as in-person.
Hand in Paw Executive Director Margaret Stinnett said, “I’ve been so inspired by the willingness of everyone to learn so they’re able to continue to help. Our volunteers have jumped right in to learn how to use the necessary technology and have adapted so well. It’s also not natural for a dog to sit in front of a laptop, but it was critical for engagement with our participants.”
Another major shift for Hand in Paw during the pandemic was in how to conduct fundraising efforts, the lifeblood for any nonprofit. “We had to do some out-of-the-box thinking,” said Development Director Ashley Foster. “We needed to come up with something totally new to raise the necessary funds and keep everyone safe in the process.”
Through the challenges came a great opportunity and “Tail Waggin’ Takeout” was created. Hand in Paw partnered with Tito’s Vodka and a local catering company to package an appetizer, wine and cocktail kit that was offered to donors at a drive-thru event on the Hand in Paw campus last August. More than 200 tickets were sold, and the positive feedback was through the roof.
“After our event, we saw a lot of other nonprofits starting to do similar things,” Foster said. “It felt great to know that we had come up with a safe alternative to our larger, in-person events that people really loved. It went so well that we held another cocktail kit drive-thru called ‘Paw-liday Spirits’ over the holidays.”
It was wins like these that the organization chose to focus on in its donation outreach and other communications. “We’re focusing on what we can do rather than our limitations,” said Brittany Filby, Hand in Paw director of communications. “People have been really excited to see how we’ve transitioned and have been happy to support us. With all of the negative things going on in the world, it’s been our goal to focus on the good.”
Up next for Hand in Paw will be its 11th annual Mutt Strut, a dog-friendly 5K and 1-mile fun run that will take place virtually April 17. The nonprofit will provide several dog-friendly race route options across Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, as well as curating music playlist options to make the virtual race experience even more fun for participants.
To register or learn more about Mutt Strut, visit www.handinpaw.org/muttstrut.
Hand in Paw staff members plan to spend the summer getting therapy teams and volunteers ready to resume in-person programming as soon as possible.
“We realize now more than ever that the world we live in really needs us,” Stinnett said. “Our focus is preparing for better days ahead.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)