Volunteers of the Month single view | PAWS Chicago

Susan Barrish

What originally drew you to PAWS Chicago?  

After Hurricane Katrina I was looking for a hands on opportunity to help hurricane victims. I found it when I heard on the local news that PAWS Chicago needed foster homes and dog walkers for the dogs rescued in Mississippi. While I couldn’t foster, I could walk dogs!  I figured out how to get to the Rescue & Recovery Center in Little Village and started walking dogs.

Prior to Katrina, I had been aware of the organization.  I lived around the corner from the Clark & Fullerton cat adoption center and for several years had window-shopped at Angels with Tails on Michigan Avenue/Oak Street. However, it wasn’t until I spent time at the Rescue & Recovery Center that I became aware of the causes and depth of the pet homelessness problem in Chicago. After the Katrina-related experience, I was hooked on PAWS.

Do you have a primary focus when you volunteer?

Over the past six years, the focus of my volunteer work has changed as the staff learned more about the skills I could bring to the table and as I learned more about the organization.  I started out doing dog/cat care and socialization, being a dog foster parent, and then was an adoption counselor.  

A number of years ago I left the corporate world.  Since then, I have devoted at least 20 hours a week to PAWS Chicago.  I partner with the volunteer program, community development and adoption program staff by converting concepts into pragmatic programs and assuming responsibility for the on-going coordination of the New Volunteer Orientation Program, Weekend Visiting Rescue Program, Adoption Center Tours, Youth Community Service opportunities and the Adult Group Visiting Volunteer Program. 

For several years, I was very pleased to bring my organizational, marketing and networking skills to the summer, outdoor adoption events know as Angels with Tails.  With focused energy, I was able to increase the number of business and shelter/rescue participants, move the event into new neighborhoods – all resulting in the ultimate goal of getting more of Chicagoland’s homeless pets into forever homes. 

I also represent PAWS Chicago at corporate presentations, fund raising events, schools and in student media opportunities.

In addition, there is a range of administrative tasks (e.g., ordering non-animal care supplies, developing forms, sending out in-kind donation letters) I perform so staff can concentrate on working with adopters,

Is there one favorite experience that has stood out during your time as a volunteer?

All the animals I meet at PAWS touch my heart.  I fall in love with someone every day but with three pets at home, my house is full.  Two of the greatest lessons I have learned while volunteering is that:

- While you may love an animal you can’t let your heart lead – you have to be objective when considering bringing the animal into your home.   You have to remember that you may not be able to offer the best/appropriate home for a specific animal (e.g., may need more daily exercise than you can provide, may need more of your company than your schedule allows). 

- Fostering is a wonderfully rewarding experience!  I am so proud that I have been able to bring animals into my home, help them emotionally or physically heal so they can select their new owners.   Yes, I do get attached to my foster animals.  And yes, it is difficult to bring them back to PAWS to be adopted.  However, when you see them go home with their new owners – who can offer them the appropriate environment -- it is sheer joy.

How does what you do for a career apply to what you do as a volunteer?

I have 30 years of management experience in the health delivery and healthcare financing industries, including 15 years as a senior executive at the national office of Blue Cross and Blue Shield.   While the industries, the markets and missions are very different, the key skill sets are analogous – opportunity identification, problem solving, establishing and maintaining relationships across a multitude of stakeholders and effective communication.

Why do you volunteer for PAWS Chicago? 

I volunteer for PAWS because of my love for all dogs and cats and to help PAWS Chicago achieve its vision of a No Kill Chicago. I highly value the relationships I have made with PAWS Chicago staff and fellow volunteers.  It is gratifying to know that my technical skills, people skills and willingness to pitch in has contributed to PAWS’ ability to increase the number of animals it can help each year.

Do you have any pets at home?

I am the proud “mom” to Bud, Jasper and Savannah. Bud was my fourth foster dog the summer of 2007.  A 20-pound Jack Russell/Beagle mix, Bud was slated to be in the pink chandelier room for the Adoption Center’s opening event. He never made it back to PAWS Chicago.  Five days into the foster period I realized that Bud already had found his forever home – my home.  Now five years old, Bud’s big personality, his love of people, dogs and cats brightens my life every day.

Bud’s best friends are the two large, cats he lives with – eight-year-old Jasper and Savannah.  I adopted the brother and sister about five years ago.  Jasper and Bud chase each other, wrestle like two little boys and, to my chagrin, share food.  Savannah prefers Bud when he is quiet – they cuddle at the foot of the bed every night.

Have you participated in any PAWS Chicago special events?

I volunteer at any special event that doesn’t require getting up at 4 am. For four years I have assisted PAWS Chicago’s special event staff by setting up the silent auction tables at the Fur Ball, Beach Party and Animal Magnetism.  In addition, I recruit and supervise the middle school and high school students to stuff goodie bags for the large fund raising events.

What value has volunteering at PAWS Chicago brought you?

It doesn’t take a large commitment to help.   A few hours a month goes a long way.  Just volunteer!