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New Program Gives Community Members Who Have a Disability the “Pawsabilities” to Participate in Activities at Animal Center  

New Program Gives Community Members Who Have a Disability the “Pawsabilities” to Participate in Activities at Animal Center  

According to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, the 40th President of the United States issued Proclamation 5613 on February 26, 1987 at the request of Congress who, by Public Law, had designated the month of March as “National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month”. In his statement, Reagan invited “ . . . all individuals, agencies, and organizations concerned with the problem of developmental disabilities to observe this month with appropriate observances and activities directed toward increasing public awareness of the needs and the potential of Americans with developmental disabilities.”

For one (1) in four (4) Americans – as estimated by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – who are living with some type of disability, March is a time for, among other things, special consideration of how those with and without a developmental disability can come together to strengthen our communities. Though an animal shelter may not necessarily be one’s first inclination as an organization to achieve such inclusion, the “Pawsabilities” program launched last year at the Williamson County Animal Center (WCAC) has done just that.

It started quite simply. Officials from Waves, Inc. contacted the animal center to schedule a visit for a few of their program’s members. By the time that first, small group left, a second visit was scheduled. Then, without knowledge of Waves’ visits, officials from Brightstone reached out to schedule a day for their students to visit and learn about employment opportunities. Around that same time, WCAC’s Assistant Director, Scott Pieper learned that one of the shelter’s dog volunteers, Molly Darr had expressed interest in exploring ways she could bring together three causes that are dear to her heart: animal welfare, working with those who have a disability and teaching. Pieper and Darr met to share ideas. Three days later, Darr submitted a curriculum that included details about how she intended to provide educational activities, interactions with animals and service projects within an hour-and-a-half long experience.

The first class was a huge hit. “We host students who feel empowered by their love of pets, who actively participate and learn about the animals they are serving and whose acts of service benefit the pets and other volunteers,” said Darr. “Love and laughter abound in every class. Everyone breaks into smiles. The Pawsabilities mission of serving animals and people simultaneously is being accomplished in these ways.” Darr is grateful to work with organizations that dedicate themselves to programs that benefit all members of the community. In fact, she calls Pawsabilities one of the greatest gifts in her life.

Soon after hosting the Brightstone group, Pieper toured their campus. While there, he pitched the class to staff and learned of a student at Brightstone who wanted to become a dog volunteer for WCAC. The first class was scheduled. Again, a huge success. With schedules in place and seeing the joy these classes bring to all who are a part of them, the WCAC team wanted to give the program a name. Everyone agreed with Darr’s suggestion, “Pawsabilities”.

According to Lance Jordan, Executive Director at Waves, Pawsabilities gives the people they serve a sense of belonging and contributing to the larger community because their service improves quality of life for the animals at WCAC. “This program has been so impactful for our day program participants,” said Jordan. “They are able to get out into the community, develop the skills needed to take care of animals then practice these skills that carry over into their everyday life.”

Pieper never forgot about the student at Brightstone who wanted to be a volunteer. He, Darr and others got together to brainstorm about how WCAC could implement a formal process for those with a disability to work directly with animals at the center. The solution is a mentor-trainee system in which established volunteers learn to facilitate effective and safe, one-on-one interactions with the trainee and animals. Waves officials produced a video to demonstrate the essential communication and other skills needed to be a successful Pawsabilities mentor that emphasizes the importance of allowing the trainee to do as much independently as they – the trainees – are comfortable doing.

Darr now conducts the Pawsabilities group classes on a bi-weekly and monthly basis for Waves and Brightstone students, respectively as well as for newcomers to the program from College Living Experience and less frequent visits by various other agencies that serve similar populations. Thus far, in 2024, 25 trainees have contributed over 240 hours of service working with the cats and dogs. The collaborative efforts of Pawsabilities also resulted in WCAC hiring a participant of Waves supported employment services.

“Pawsabilities allows us to engage an under-served group of citizens and team up with organizations that do amazing work in our county,” according to WCAC Director, Ondrea Johnson. “It is our goal to be a resource for every citizen of Williamson County, but as the mother of an adult with a developmental disability, the opportunity to serve this specific population hits close to home.” Johnson said that because of her personal experiences, she understands it is important to all people to feel that they contribute to their community in a meaningful way. She believes that Pawsabilities gives its participants a fun way to give back and that the mentors are benefitting from it as well. “We are incredibly proud to be part of this program,” she said.

Though Pawsabilities has been a relative secret until now, the program has received recognition as a 2023 Success Story Winner from Tennessee County Services Association. For her role, Darr’s contributions and dedication – she leads or facilitates every aspect of Pawsabilities – as a volunteer, she was selected as the Neighbor to Neighbor award winner at this year’s Franklin Tomorrow’s Exemplary Community Volunteer Awards celebration. Of course, she chose Waves and WCAC as the recipients of a donation made in her name for winning.

WCAC officials are currently working with groups serving those with autism and their families to create similar opportunities as well as ways to engage young children with disabilities. Anyone who is interested in learning more about Pawsabilities or exploring opportunities to team up with WCAC to create similar programs can contact Pieper at , (615) 218-8151 or visit the animal center’s website.