City Lifestyle

Want to start a publication?

Learn More

Featured Article

Not All Heroes Wear Capes —or Stand Upright

The pets of Hand in Paw serve our community

Niblet came into Pam Strange’s life at a pivotal moment — Pam had lost her husband and needed four-legged support. An avid volunteer with Alabama Pug Rescue, Pam was actively trying to find Niblet a home, then realized her new friend was sent especially for her. Today, Niblet and Pam are part of Hand in Paw’s therapeutic pet teams, bringing special healing to those who need it. 

Founded by Beth Franklin in 1996, Hand in Paw is a nonprofit dedicated to providing animal-assisted therapy. The 27-year old organization is currently led by a dedicated board of directors and executive director Margaret Stinnett, and the Avondale-based campus serves Jefferson, Tuscaloosa, Shelby and St. Clair counties. 

“Beth quit her job and used her retirement funds to start the organization,” notes Brittany Filby, communications director. “She took a chance because when she was with the Humane Society, she saw how dogs can be a friend and provide comfort to kids.” 

Hand in Paw is made up of volunteer pets and their owners, with a current roster of about 80 therapy teams. To become a therapy team, volunteers 21 and older must apply online, and their dog (or cat!) must be at least 2 years old and complete an obedience course. Next, teams complete a series of workshops lasting four weeks, followed by a final evaluation. 

Then comes the exciting part: getting on the schedule to help someone. Therapy teams are mentored closely, and programs range from supporting children in schools to providing goal-oriented treatment alongside medical professionals. Niblet, for example, visits Children’s of Alabama each Wednesday and Thursday, where she provides animal-assisted therapy for patients and families. 

“Each day, she’s just as enthusiastic to work as she was her first time,” Pam beams. “She enters the hospital with the tail she is known for (it never stops wagging) and makes eye contact with every person she passes. I always say that I am truly just the other end of her leash. Everyone knows Niblet.”

Karen Ford and her Corgi, Chester, are veterans of Hand in Paw, having volunteered with the organization 11 years and counting. Chester works with children in schools for whom English is not their primary language, offering his friendly, furry support to improve reading and conversation skills. 

“We don’t know a lot about these children when they come to us, and some have special circumstances, such as being on the spectrum,” Karen says. “Chester responds differently to them. All the kids pet him, and he loves it, but he will occasionally offer additional comfort —place his head on the lap of a child—and I always find out later there’s something special about that child.”

At their respective jobs, Chester and Niblet are excited to be there and leave an impression on everyone they meet. Whether simply walking down a hallway or fostering a connection, these dogs give back the same love and friendship they receive. In many cases, therapy teams make the difference between hope and despair, and Pam and Karen agree their pets have a distinct gift of intuition. 

“I think people need to know that organizations like Hand in Paw do incredible work,” Karen notes. “Not all dogs can do this. And the humans have to be devoted as well. Once, this little girl coming into the classroom was so anxious; you could see it on her face. Then, she approached Chester and started petting him and talking to him in Spanish — and the look on her face was so rewarding. You saw the tension vanishing and her thinking, he understands me.”

“I have seen so many miracles because of this little girl,” Pam muses. “If the children are hurting, Niblet quietly sits close; if they are silly, she dances around them; and if they need snuggling during a painful procedure, she is there. To have your eyes lock with the eyes of a worried parent and see a smile as their child silently makes a connection . . .  is a miracle few ever get to experience.  This is the mission of Hand in Paw.”
 

  • Niblet

Support Hand in Paw by attending the annual fundraiser, Picasso Pets, August 19. This evening at the Harbert Center will feature a tutus and top hats theme, cocktail reception, star therapy animals, delectable hors d'oeuvres and a live auction. Picasso Pets is Hand in Paw’s main source of revenue and allows the nonprofit to carry out their mission free of charge. The event is sponsored by VP Funds, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Mr. & Mrs. Scott Vowell, John 3:16 and Medical Properties Trust. 


Visit handinpaw.org/events to purchase tickets. 

In addition, Hand in Paw is always looking for qualified volunteers and community support. For more information, visit handinpaw.org.