Volunteers of the Month single view | PAWS Chicago

Terry Leja

What originally drew you to PAWS Chicago?  

Within a year or so of my relocating from San Francisco, I read an article about PAWS and Paula Fasseas in Chicago Magazine. I was impressed by Paula’s analytical and strategic approach to animal rescue and especially welcomed the focus on spay/neuter to reduce the population of unwanted pets. And I liked the idea of “the big tent;” that is welcoming, supporting and encouraging other animal rescue organizations to participate in PAWS events. A few months later, I was in Lincoln Park with my two rescue dogs when I ran into a striking woman with a pink baseball hat with the PAWS logo. I recognized her from her photo in the article. We talked for a bit and I was genuinely impressed with her business acumen and big loving heart for animals.


PAWS moved to the top of my list of organizations to explore for volunteer opportunities. So, when my dog groomer mentioned she was volunteering at the Fur Ball, I signed up. I was stunned at the care and attention paid to the furry “guests” at the Fur Ball. Next, I volunteered for the Angels with Tails Michigan Avenue adoption event. At the event, I recognized the focus on including other animal rescues for the benefit of all animals needing homes.  Over the next few years I volunteered at various PAWS events, including the Hurricane Katrina effort.  Each time I volunteered, I was positively in awe of the care for the cause of re-homing the multitude of pets waiting for adoption.  

Do you have a primary focus when you volunteer?

In 2010, I decided that I wanted to be a more regular volunteer but didn’t feel that I had the ability to become an Adoption Counselor or the schedule to become a dog walker. Due to allergies I am excluded from Kitty City! The Executive Director met with me and presented some of the organization’s needs, one of which was in the foster area.  One of the first projects I did was to review and update the foster database. That resulted in becoming a screener for potential foster volunteers.


Is there a favorite experience that has stood out during your time as a volunteer at PAWS Chicago?

There are so many, I will give you two. The first was during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Adoption Center; it was touching to see that finally the dream of a progressively designed Adoption Center was coming to Chicago. To me, it was a statement about the welcomed and needed change that was finally happening in the sheltering world of this big city and the Midwest.


My second favorite experience occurred when I was making foster telephone calls. Generally, when I am in an office, there is always a dog with me. One day, my companion was a 100+ pound Mastiff/Labrador/Boxer mix.  He walked into the office, placed his super big super-sized head on my lap and looked at me with these big sad eyes. My heart melted. He was adopted that day to someone familiar with big dog needs. As I was going home, I thought how great it was that there is hope for a home for all PAWS rescues. I realized how hard everyone works at PAWS (both staff and volunteers) to make the right thing happen for each dog or cat that is placed in a home.

Why do you volunteer for PAWS Chicago? 

Volunteering for PAWS for me is about being a part of an organization that is trying to revolutionize the animal rescue effort.  PAWS is attempting to strategically address a complex community issue of too many animals, some not humanely treated in strategic ways. One of the initial strategic moves was the focus on spay/neuter to reduce the population of unwanted cats and dogs; that effort continues in the brilliant concept of the Gusmobile (mobile spay/neuter clinic) that takes a needed service to the communities where the service is most needed.  I also love the idea of taking adoption out to the community in neighborhood adoption events.  The education and outreach efforts which allow many different school, business and church groups to get involved with PAWS whether it be PAWS visits to the group or the group visiting PAWS, is a great initiative.  When I am doing phone calls I often meet students or business people while they are doing a project at PAWS. What a smart way to spread the word about animal rescue and humane treatment.  


My enjoyment in volunteering is talking with potential foster volunteers. Often I come upon people who really want to help animals in a way they can integrate in to their busy lives. In explaining how the foster program operates, I can stress to the volunteers their role as coaches to the animals so that the placement in their forever home is a smoother transition. I am happy to work through the stack of foster applications because good foster volunteers means that PAWS can leverage physical space to make more room for more rescues. In my mind, the foster program really helps that effort exponentially.  And if the potential foster decides that fostering may not be the best fit, I can tell them about all of the other many volunteer options available that may better fit into their lives and the lives of their partners or other family members.


I love walking into the Adoption Center and seeing the lobby area full of potential adopters and their friends/families – all wanting to find a special pal to be part of their lives. 


Also, it is endearing to see other rescue groups showing their dogs to others. I am proud of how welcomed PAWS makes those groups feel with special signage, a welcome basket of items they might need and a space for them to use.  We truly have a big tent at PAWS where the whole community of rescue groups can unite in the ultimate goal of animal welfare.   For that I am extremely excited.


Do you have any PAWS Chicago alumni pets - or any other pets - at home?

I have two pups at my home.  They are a breed called “fluff butts.” Princess came to me via a friend of a friend.  I am her fourth owner and she truly is THE PRINCESS!  I am also a hospice volunteer and Princess is part of my volunteering. She loves visiting patients and in nursing homes she is a welcome “royal” visitor.


My other spoiled one is Bojangles (aka Bo). He is the boyfriend of Princess. They have been in a committed relationship for about five years!  Bo belonged to a very good friend of mine. In our friendship, we agreed that each would take the other’s pup if something happened so that the pup couple could stay together. In 2009, my friend died and Bo came to live with his girlfriend permanently. His main interest when not being in love with Princess is chasing squirrels. Fortunately for the squirrels, he has not yet learned to climb trees. Even though they are “involved” – both are fixed – so fortunately no puppies have ever been or will be on the horizon!


What value has volunteering at PAWS Chicago brought you?

On several occasions I have spent time at the Rescue & Recovery Center where the Foster Program is administered.  I was overwhelmed by the volume of work that happens there.  In addition to administration of the Foster Program that is where most of the medical procedures happen, where puppies and kittens with or without moms are nurtured, it is unbelievable what is accomplished. 


The monitoring of the pets until they are ready for foster or adoption is a very time consuming and intense.  I was pleased to see the importance of isolation areas, the focus on correct procedures and the care that is exhibited with each “patient.” It was also marvelous to meet the foster volunteers, some of whom I had screened on the telephone.  Each foster volunteer seems to have the flexibility, understanding of animal care and common sense necessary for this important volunteer function within PAWS. It was a pleasure to visit with them and see them as they picked up their newest foster or litter of fosters.  The foster volunteers are a uniquely caring species of animal lovers! My faith in humankind is continually renewed each time I think about these special people.


I have learned that PAWS is a remarkable organization attempting to do remarkable things with limited staff, many volunteers (more always needed) and a very strategic focus. The staff are indeed miracle workers - doing so much to help animals, and maybe more importantly, to help people of all ages understand the importance of humane treatment that all pets in our community need and deserve.