Welcome to #CLPSpotlights, our monthly series highlighting individuals and organizations that make a difference in their community. This month, we interviewed Melissa Stammely-Park, the Therapeutic Programs Coordinator at Animal Friends. Animal Friends has been impacting the lives of animals and people for over 75 years with their enriching programs and rescue services. The Library is lucky to receive regularly scheduled Therapets visitors! Check our events page to find out when they’ll visit a library near you.
Q. How has your work evolved during the pandemic to meet the community’s needs?
A. While I was not at Animal Friends before COVID, much has been shared with me about the way Animal Friends does things now vs. how we did them pre-COVID. Animal Friends’ Therapets program–which consists of certified dogs, cats, and rabbits and their volunteer handlers who visit hospitals, libraries, school, long-term care facilities, and other settings–was put on pause for quite some time during COVID as the places we typically visited were not open or their COVID policies did not allow for in-person visits. Animal Friends was following strict COVID protocols as well in order to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible. This break gave Animal Friends an opportunity to assess new ways to approach pet therapy and pet-assisted literacy (our PALS program, which involves Therapets teams with additional training and invites students to read to therapy animals), even beyond COVID-related changes. Some volunteers offered video pet therapy, but without the physical contact with the animals, the benefits were not the same. Demand for these services has been increasing in the last several months, so we are working as quickly as we can to train and certify additional teams, but we want to maintain the integrity of the program and keep class sizes small. It has been a balancing act. We can train up to 12 new teams per quarter, so we are still catching up.
Like many other organizations, we learned how to do more virtually. As an example, we are currently developing video-based training for our PALS teams.
Additionally, some sites being visited require masks, proof of COVID vaccinations and/or COVID testing. The volunteers have been wonderful about pivoting to adjust to these new requirements and changes.
Q. What is your favorite part of what you do?
A. Watching the animals as they train to become Therapets was amazing. Like humans born to be teachers, doctors, etc. some animals seem to be born to bring joy to complete strangers. They just seem to love everyone, approach them willingly, lean into them to provide comfort, and read the humans incredibly well. We have gotten some amazing feedback from places that have had Therapets visit, and the power of animals to bring comfort, even through brief interactions, is incredibly heartwarming. Therapets have visited school staff members struggling with the death of a student, those who work in especially stressful fields such as the Medical Examiner’s office, college campuses during exam weeks, and so much more. Animals can bring joy to anyone who is open to trying animal therapy!
Q. How did you come to work for your organization?
A. In May 2021, I obtained my Master of Science degree in Anthrozoology from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. For those who haven’t heard of Anthrozoology, it is the study of human-animal relationships, from the companion animals we love to the foods we eat. I took a course on Animal Assisted Interventions that really opened my eyes to the types of programs that had become available to bring the joy of animals into therapeutic and other public settings. I was completely unaware of how widely accepted they had become. I started looking around locally and found out that Animal Friends had been offering this kind of programming for some time. It immediately piqued my interest. I had been volunteering with wildlife for years and thought I would find a career helping wild animals until I saw an ad for my current position at Animal Friends. I have over 10 years working in social services helping humans, so it seemed such a great combination of my career experience and newly obtained education. I couldn’t pass it up.
Q. What do you wish the public knew about your organization?
A. Animal Friends is truly a community resource, not just a place to adopt a pet. We are here for the lifetime of the pet and to bring the joy of animals to the community. At Animal Friends we offer training and behavioral services, a full veterinary clinic on site open to the public, a pet food bank that networks with other food banks in the area, and my personal favorite, Animal Friends for Veterans. With the Major Ben Follansbee Memorial Fund we are able to offer free adoptions of dogs, cats, or rabbits to area veterans, plus discounts on training programs coordinated through Animal Friends. We have three tiers for veteran training programs–from no assistance needed to discounted group trainings at Animal Friends up to customized 1×1 dog training in the veterans’ homes for specific training needs. For those with qualifying income, we also offer discounts at our veterinary clinic and the pet food bank. Community generosity is key to keeping these programs available to those in need, so we want to be sure everyone knows they can donate pet food and other items, money, time, etc. that will help community members in need, and donations go beyond helping just the shelter animals. Information about these programs and how to donate can be found on our website at ThinkingOutsideTheCage.org.
Q. What role does CLP have in helping your organization?
A. Multiple CLP branches have therapy animals and literacy animals come in on a regularly scheduled basis. This allows the community to see first-hand how therapy and literacy animals help the community as a whole. Children who may be shy readers find it easier to read to an animal, knowing they do not care if the child is mispronouncing a word or reading at a slow pace. Community members who enjoy the presence of animals can say hello to a therapy animal, chat with their handler, share their own animal stories, and simply connect with each other over the shared animal-human bond. The library system has been integral to bringing this to all communities in the Pittsburgh area, and the libraries are such a community asset in so many ways as well.