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Most people wouldn't think picking up dog poop is therapeutic, but that's not always the case. For a group of individuals with developmental disabilities, cleaning up after a pup is one of their highlights of the week.
Last month, the Animal Care League and Oak-Leyden Developmental Services formed a partnership made in doggie heaven. Each week, a group of two or three Oak-Leyden clients travels to ACL to do a little volunteering — washing laundry, cleaning windows and sweeping floors.
But the best part is helping the cats and dogs grow accustomed to being with people, so they're ready for adoption. After a quick wipe down of some windows last week, Nancy Morley, 43, got to goof around with Rudy, a 1-year-old golden retriever. Rudy ran circles around Nancy and her two friends, chasing balls, jumping up against people's chests and in general just being a dog.
"I knew he was gonna do that!" Morley said after Rudy gave her a big lick on the face.
Jenny Zosel, a case manager with Oak-Leyden, accompanies her threesome to the shelter each week. She believes both the animals and the people benefit in multiple ways from the arrangement.
"I think the animals are getting something by having people play with them, and then our clients are also getting good experiences by playing with the animals," she said. "It's a therapeutic experience to play with an animal."
In October, Oak-Leyden reached out to the Animal Care League to propose a partnership. The nonprofit was founded in 1956 by a group of concerned families, seeking a way for developmentally disabled people to live as independently as possible, according to the organization's website.
Oak-Leyden now has 85 members in its Oak Park day program and is always looking for volunteer opportunities, said Zosel. Their "developmental training program" is tailored to the unique needs of each individual. For some, volunteering is a stepping stone to landing a paying job. For others, it's a chance to get out of the house and into the real world for a spell, to get better at interacting with others.
With the troubled economy, Zosel said, employment opportunities have become scarce. In the past, Oak-Leyden focused strictly on vocational training but has branched out to the volunteer arena.
"Since the economy has tanked and work opportunities have become harder to find, we're expanding our services," she said. "And that's why we started volunteering, to give our clients a way to go into the community, to do something productive, and to feel like they're part of the community without just going to the store."
Margaret Poepp, vice president of human resources for Oak Leyden, and a two-year volunteer at ACL, was one of those who lobbied for the two organizations to join up. Though she wishes she had been the first to think of the idea, she agrees that the two organizations make a perfect pairing.
"It's great for our individuals because they need to have opportunities outside of our building to broaden their experience," Poepp said. "And working with the Animal Care League, I know our animals need a lot of attention and socialization during the day. To me, it's kind of a win-win on both sides."
The shelter's executive director, Tom Van Winkle, was intrigued by the opportunity to work with Oak Leyden. He just wanted to make sure both the animals and the group's clients were safe, and asked that a counselor be on hand to supervise the program, and that the volunteers go through normal training.
Van Winkle, thus far, has been impressed with the work of Oak-Leyden's volunteers. Some people, though their hearts are in the right place, try to do more than they're trained for, and end up complicating things.
"This group doesn't," he said. "They're trained in a certain task, they come and do what we've asked them to do, and they do a very good job of it. It's been a great pleasure for us."
Oak-Leyden kicked things off in late October, as Martin Contreras, the shelter's assistant director and volunteer coordinator, held two separate training sessions for about 20 people. Since then, Zosel and Bobbie Holmes have been bringing a different group to ACL every Tuesday morning.
Each week, Contreras assigns a handful of duties to the three rotating volunteers. On Dec. 7, the group included Morley, Manny Rodriguez, 39, and Christopher Wright, 37. Zosel declined to talk about their specific conditions, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Rodriguez and Morley live in Oak-Leyden group homes in Berwyn and Forest Park, respectively. Wright stays in Chicago with his family and a dog of his own.
Their volunteer hour started with Rodriguez washing a load of blankets and towels, Wright sweeping floors in the shelter hallways, and Morley washing some interior windows. After the chores, Morley and Rodriguez ventured into a room full of caged cats, giving them a chance to cuddle and play with them to help prepare the felines for their next owner. There they briefly petted, dangled a feather and tried to hold an uncooperative 10-year-old tabby named Maserati.
Afterward, they walked to another room, where a golden retriever, Rudy, waited anxiously for someone to play with. But first, Wright cheerfully scooped up and mopped a pile of doggie doo. Rudy was a much more willing playmate, as he scampered around the small room, giving kisses, chasing after balls and sitting on command. When they were through, Wright, Rodriguez and Morley cleaned up the toys, washed their hands and put on their coats. All three said the volunteer outing was one of the highlights of their week.
The hour seemed to fly by. "It sure did," Morley said with a smile. Zosel noted the program has gone so well, Oak-Leyden would love to expand it, perhaps coming several times a week, involving more participants and increasing their duties.
With some 40 dogs and 60 cats in the shelter at any given time, all in need of food and care, there's never a shortage of things to do at the Animal Care League, Contreras said. He'd love to see the smiling faces of Oak-Leyden's clients more often, and so would Van Winkle.
"We need all the help we can get," Van Winkle said. "There are lots of things for people to do, and the group is wonderful. They're very friendly, they work hard, and they do a great job."