Helpers in need of help: Strapped for volunteers, For Pets’ Sake considers scaling back

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For Pets’ Sake Humane Society rescued these cats from a location in Cahone, Colo., along with several dogs and puppies, and took them to find new homes. FPS works to help companion animals in Montezuma and Dolores counties.

Every spring and fall, somewhere in Cortez, donations begin pouring into an empty building. Cars and pickups arrive, packed with furniture, clothes, books, bric-a-brac, kids’ toys, art works, and more. Volunteers hustle to ferry the goods into the building, while others sort them and set them out on display.

Bargain-hunters pore over the offerings. Avid readers snatch up books for a quarter apiece. Families nab children’s clothes, blankets, trikes and bikes. Sporting goods and exercise equipment find new homes.

An enormous amount of material is exchanged rather than sent to the landfill. And the proceeds go directly to programs that help dogs and cats in Montezuma and Dolores counties.

The semi-annual For Pets’ Sake Humane Society yard sale has become a Cortez phenomenon. The most recent one, in April, raised $15,000 (minus the cost of renting the building). Held over two three-day weekends, it was the biggest and most successful yet.

But the event’s future is uncertain. Its very success is becoming a problem, according to Marian Rohman, president of the board of For Pets’ Sake.

“Every sale has been bigger than the one before, which is great, but it’s gotten beyond our ability to handle it,” she said. “We’ve had to go into such a big space that we have to pay a lot for rent.”

Once in recent years, she said, Osprey was able to donate space in an empty building it was already leasing, but the company wasn’t able to do so this year. The only venue Rohman could find was in the old Walmart building at the Cortez Plaza on the east end of town, which cost $3,000 to rent.

“That one expense is probably more than we’ll spend on all our administrative expenses for the whole year,” she said.

Local options for alternate sites are extremely limited. It isn’t just finding a large space that’s the problem – there needs to be parking for 100 or 200 cars.

Rohman said renting a giant tent would be more expensive than the old Walmart space because rental would have to be paid for the days in between the sale’s two weekends.

But beyond concerns about the venue, there is an even bigger problem with the yard sale: burned-out, aging volunteers.

A core group of about a dozen volunteers regularly for all the For Pets’ Sake fundraising events. About 40 more volunteer specifically for the yard sale.

But even that isn’t always enough to help with set-up and clean-up, not to mention staffing the sale itself. Many, to put it kindly, are of an age when they probably shouldn’t be hefting sofas and cabinets or standing on their feet for hours.

At the end of the April sale, the weary workers started breaking down tables and hauling away unsold goods at 3 p.m. and didn’t finish till 8:30.

“We don’t have enough volunteers for set-up and break-down,” Rohman said, “so the people who are there and do show up get totally burned out.

“We just don’t know what we’re going to do with the yard sales because I don’t know how you make them smaller. I’ve said for two years in a row if we don’t get enough volunteers to set up and break down, I’m going to quit doing the sales.”

One option could be holding just a single sale a year, probably in the spring – but that would mean raising fewer funds.

“They’ve become such money-makers,” Rohman said. “Going to three days each weekend this time [instead of two] helped bring in even more money. That was the biggest jump we’ve had. We may go to one yard sale, but then we would lose money.”

And ending or cutting down on the sales would leave a certain void in the community, which has come to anticipate the semi-annual event. Many people save their unwanted goods for months so they can give them to For Pets’ Sake.

“Our yard sale is huge,” Rohman said. “We get wonderful donations, some brand-new. We had a woman who died and her sister donated a whole storage shed of things she had bought but never opened.

“We get people who are moving and say, ‘Can you take everything in my house?’ Usually we can’t because we don’t have the storage for it.”

Other organizations benefit from the sale. For Pets’ Sake donates clothes and blankets to the Bridge Emergency Shelter and funnels some school supplies to teachers for free. At the end of the sale, leftover items are given to Renew.

“The stuff doesn’t get thrown out but gets recycled yet again. We’re happy to connect with the rest of the community.”

By any measure, For Pets’ Sake Humane Society is highly successful.

Begun in 1984 and incorporated as a 501(c)3 in 1987,it has three main focuses: getting animals spayed and neutered; helping pet owners pay for medical emergencies; and a program to trap, neuter, vaccinate and release feral cats to reduce their population over time.

Through relentless grant-writing and fundraisers (the yard sale, bake sales, an annual membership drive, a Thanksgiving “turkey trot,” the July Pennies for Pets campaign and a summer wine festival), the organization has gone from an annual budget of a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000. Those funds provide for a variety of activities:

  • A 50-50 cost-share for spaying and neutering (that program is presently out of money, but the group has applied for more grant funds). FPS sponsors a spay-neuter clinic in Towaoc on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.
  • Two low-cost vaccination clinics a year, with the help of local veterinarians.
  • Financial assistance for pet owners facing steep vet bills.
  • Temporary assistance to owners short on pet food.
  • Foster care for homeless pets, and help matching them with new owners.
  • The Feral Cat Project.

Over the years thousands of pets have been neutered, vaccinated, rescued from dire circumstances, and provided with medical care.

And everything is done through volunteers. FPS has no paid staff.

A love for animals is something that transcends barriers: age, race, political leanings. People of all stripes have given their time and money to For Pets’ Sake.

“The community is dramatically supportive,” Rohman said. “Our fundraisers and donations are huge for the size of this community.”

But the need in the local area is also huge, and that leads to a perennial problem — finding folks to do all the work.

The group’s mainstay is its board, which is far more than advisory. The members roll up their sleeves and do the vast majority of work for the nonprofit.

They take phone calls, rescue injured animals, brainstorm fundraising ideas, bake items for bake sales, and badger friends and family to adopt cats and dogs in need – driven by the desire to reduce the suffering of companion animals that have come to depend on human beings.

A few years ago, for instance, Rohman began stopping to move dead cats off roadways. She came across two that weren’t dead. They now live with her and her husband.

FPS rescued a feral kitten found with a ruptured eye; it was treated and now has a home with another board member. A small dog in a similar situation likewise was rescued, had its eye removed, and has been adopted, thanks to FPS.

Board members tend to gravitate toward activities that particularly interest them. One writes the monthly newsletter, one serves as treasurer. Some work more with dogs, others with cats.

One focuses on finding donations of pet food, such as broken bags from Walmart, and relaying them to owners in need (on a temporary basis only).

Another board member helps connect pet owners with foundations and groups that can assist them with special situations, or find new homes for problem animals. Recently she arranged for two 11-year-old Bengal cats with behavioral problems to be transported by plane to Dallas to a rescue group specializing in that breed. “It took her over 150 emails,” Rohman said. “It’s a ton of her time but it doesn’t cost us any money.

“Sometimes she can place less-adoptable animals with rescue groups that work with those animals. None of the rest of us have the time.”

The problem is, as board members come and go, there aren’t always replacements to step into the niche.

For instance, Rohman said, For Pets’ Sake used to have a very active program fostering and finding homes for dogs, “but the two people who were running that both retired off the board and the one who took over moved out of state. We help people advertise animals on our Facebook page, but that’s about all we do. We don’t have people stepping up to help with dog foster programs.”

Rohman organizes the yard sale almost single-handedly and also manages the Feral Cat Project. “That is actually much more time-consuming than being [board] president,” she said. “We’re down to two volunteers from five or six [for the cat project] and this means the two people just go crazy.”

But the demand for the program, which has so far trapped and neutered nearly 3,000 feral cats, remains high.

“Last night I spent two hours catching six little five-week-old kittens in a longterm colony,” Rohman said. “We trapped two cats we thought were boys, and both turned out to be nursing moms.”

Feral kittens are taken to the Cortez Animal Shelter, where FPS pays for them to be fixed. The shelter socializes them and tries to find them homes; some are transferred to Colorado’s Front Range, where there is more demand.

Rohman says the Feral Cat Project has had a huge impact in reducing the number of cats in long-term colonies. “In places like trailer parks that used to be over-run with cats and scrawny kittens, now you see maybe one or two adults with their ear tips marked.” (The top quarter-inch of one ear is cut when the animals are vaccinated and neutered so they won’t be trapped again.)

However, Rohman says she still gets calls about new places where cats are running wild. “It’s all word of mouth, so people don’t hear about the project unless they know someone who’s already had it done. That has kept it at a manageable pace, but right now we’re short of money, so we’re not going to trap for a few weeks. There are two more colonies I’m not getting to, and now there are five on the waiting list – oh, well.”

It’s a situation common to many nonprofits – the need for volunteer help. But for this group, the need is critical since volunteers constitute the staff.

FPS bylaws call for the board to have nine to 13 members. It now has nine (Rohman, Cheri Valle, Lynn Dyer, Kristina Ricca, Sally Jo Leitner, Sara Reese, Kathy McWhite, Randy Rober and Lavina Sanstead), but Rohman expects to lose one in August. So far, no one else has stepped up to join. Also, the treasurer will be moving out of that position and someone with bookkeeping skills is needed.

“It takes a lot to run a humane society,” Rohman said. “If we don’t get the board members we need, we may have to cut back on services, or go on a moratorium.”

That would have a widespread impact – not only on companion animals throughout Montezuma and Dolores counties, but on local veterinarians. “Almost all the money we raise goes to the vets in the area, for spays and neuters and for medical expenses,” Rohman said. The group meets monthly, usually on the third Thursday, in the Cortez library; meetings are open to the public and are advertised in the Cortez Journal classifieds.

The annual meeting, which includes a picnic potluck and only a little business, will be Aug. 28, and the board will be talking about the future. “I’m getting close to 20 years [with FPS],” Rohman said. “Right now I’m so burned out I don’t even want to think about the possibilities, but we’re trying to keep For Pets’ Sake going as an active organization.”

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From July 2016. Read similar stories about , .