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Homeless Youth Put 'Hand2Paw' and Find Some Kindred Spirits

April 21, 2011 By:
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Rachel Cohen won national recognition for her Hand2Paw nonprofit.

Rachel Cohen keeps her University of Pennsylvania dorm room well-stocked -- with doggie treats.

The 20-year-old junior doesn't have any pets on campus; that would violate the rules she upholds as a resident assistant.

Rather, Cohen buys the canine confections for weekly visits to two local animal shelters, where she coordinates a group of homeless young adults to volunteer through her nonprofit organization, "Hand2Paw."

It's a massive undertaking that recently earned the aspiring veterinarian from Abington a national "Students in Service" award.

Along with the recognition, she'll receive $10,000 -- half for college tuition, the other half to be split between the nonprofit and Penn's service-learning programs, where she first developed the animal-centered concept.

Cohen traces her passion for animals all the way back to a book about dogs that her parents bought her for Chanukah when she was 8 years old. Though her family is fairly secular, Cohen said she became more involved in Judaism after participating on a Birthright trip last year.

Although she was bothered by what she perceived as cruel treatment of camels during a visit to a Bedouin tent, she said she was impressed to learn about Judaism's compassion with regard to animal treatment.

That value "guides why I do this," she said.

The idea for Hand2Paw was born in late 2009 as part of an assignment for an urban studies class. The Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society was about to open a new shelter in West Philly that had the capacity to serve thousands more animals, if there was sufficient staffing.

Cohen remembered a Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition report that she'd stumbled upon, describing how one-in-four foster-care children in the city become homeless after aging out of the system. Cohen said it just seemed natural to see if the two groups could benefit each other.

With buy-in from PAWS, Cohen reached out to Covenant House, a 51-bed facility for homeless young adults in the Germantown section of the city.

Under the supervision of vet students and trainers at the shelter, the homeless youths bathe animals, hold kittens, clean cages and sort donations. In addition to taking the dogs out for exercise, the volunteers -- ages 18 to 21 -- also help train them to obey basic commands.

"Here we are giving them a chance to give back, and it's just so wonderful to watch because you can just see them light up when they're at the shelter," said Cohen.

'Can I Go?'

Since there's only space for eight volunteers at each session, Cohen said, there's always a few people left to wait for next week after the Covenant van loads up.

"I would literally have kids begging me, 'Oh, can I go, can I go?' " said Robert Zindell, a residential coordinator at Covenant.

For those who struggle with social anxiety, Zindell said, the experience "seems almost therapeutic." By the end of the 21/2-hour session, a quiet, withdrawn teen suddenly becomes more talkative, he said.

"There's sort of a kindred spirit between the youth who have really lacked stability and lacked a traditional family life, and the animals who are in the same boat," added Melissa Levy, executive director of PAWS.

In January, Cohen expanded her program by adding at-risk youth affiliated with Project H.O.M.E. and the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals adoption center in North Philly.

Next month, she said, she'll grow it even further, bringing volunteers to the shelters not just once, but twice a week.

Cohen estimated that more than 50 youth have volunteered through her program so far. Two took unpaid internships through Hand2Paw, working part-time at PAWS for six weeks. A third young man just completed a privately funded paid internship and landed a job at a pet store.

The new service award, which was based on a combination of community votes and judging, will allow Hand2Paw to offer more paid internships over the summer, said Cohen.

Aside from teaching youth to act professionally and other skills they'll need to secure paid jobs, Cohen said she hopes her nonprofit encourages them to take a stand against animal cruelty.

"The long-term impact of Hand2paw is to empower kids to go back in their communities," she said, "and to treat animals with respect."

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