Shelterluv Stories: The Volunteers of Evanston Animal Shelter

Every day, our customers display incredible acts of compassion that impact the lives of animals and humans alike—including the 150+ volunteers who keep the Evanston Animal Shelter running. These are some of their stories.

There was once a time when municipal animal shelters were seen as places where homeless animals went to die. The moment you walk through the front door at Evanston Animal Shelter, you’ll quickly realize that’s no longer the case. 

“There’s a spirit of family here,” says Vicky Pasenko, co-founder and co-president of the Evanston Animal Shelter Association. It’s not uncommon to see Pasenko right alongside shelter volunteers six days a week, but she is quick to emphasize that they’re the true forces behind the operation. “We only have two paid staff and about 150 volunteers. I’m continually amazed by the volunteer commitment that keeps this place going.”

Forging Connections

Although all of the volunteers are united by their passion for helping animals in need, it’s clear that the reason why they keep coming back is that they too have found sanctuary within Evanston Animal Shelter in one way or another. Even just learning about how volunteers wound up at the shelter is revealing: Mike H., a dog volunteer, found out about the volunteer opportunity through a yoga class and couldn’t pass up the chance to learn more. He’s now helping out at adoption events. Another dog volunteer, Meghan, decided to volunteer to help alleviate her homesickness after moving to the Evanston area from Virginia. “I grew up with dogs, so I knew that being here would help me feel more at home,” she says. 

“There are people who give money to charity, and then there are people who give their time. I just wanted to be one of those people who gave my time and to be a part of what’s really going on at the shelter,” says Mike M., who has been volunteering with the Evanston Animal Shelter for more than 5 years and also fosters dogs with his wife. 

Emma, a dog kennel captain, began volunteering at Evanston Animal Shelter while she was a student at Northwestern University. Even though she now lives in Chicago, she commutes in from the city every Wednesday evening to help out at the shelter. “I didn’t have friends outside of school, and I wanted to meet new people while working with animals. I quickly became close with people that I never thought I’d have so much in common with. This is such a strong community and we look out for each other,” she says. She wears a crocheted hat with the letters “EAS” on the front, which a fellow volunteer made to keep volunteers warm during cold weather shifts. 

Emma and adoptable dog Aretha

“They just do right by the animals here. Everyone approaches their work with so much respect and enthusiasm,” says Melissa, who has worked with animals throughout her career.

Brittany, a board member, began volunteering at the shelter every day during a hiatus from practicing law. “I wanted to do something fulfilling with my time, so I went straight to the shelter. When I started, there were quite a few different animal cases that we were juggling—and that just made it all the more exciting to help out. I just keep coming back!”

Emma, Melissa, and Brittany all recall Jackson, a dog who was so stressed out when he arrived at the shelter that his crate needed to be covered with a blanket.

“No one could touch him until we got a mama dog who was found as a stray. She herself was going through a lot without having her puppies around, and Jackson just fell in love with her. She helped him come out of his shell and learn how to walk on the leash. We saw two dogs from two totally different backgrounds just helping each other survive. It was amazing,” says Melissa. 

“I remember when Jackson let me walk him for the first time. I am pretty sure I just sat here and cried,” says Emma. 

Emma and Brittany snuggling two adoptable puppies

Finding Healing Through Volunteering 

Amy, a dog kennel captain who has been volunteering at Evanston Animal Shelter since 2016, was drawn to volunteer after surviving cancer. “I asked myself big questions like, ‘Why am I here? What’s my purpose?’ I really found that purpose here at Evanston Animal Shelter. This place gives me sanity. It’s my break from the crazy world out there. Because I know that when a dog comes through these doors, they’re going to get consistent meals, a warm bed, and they’re going to get loved on by us. What could be better than that?”

For Kate, Evanston Animal Shelter gave her an opportunity to heal after suffering a tragic loss. “A couple months after I graduated from college, my boyfriend passed away unexpectedly. On top of that, I had just moved to Evanston and was just a few weeks away from starting graduate school. I didn’t know how I was going to get through it. I cried until my eyes bled.” 

After her roommate’s friend brought her new puppy over to their apartment, Kate realized how much joy being around dogs brought her. “I quickly researched local animal shelters that I could give my time to, and that’s how I discovered Evanston Animal Shelter.”

While being around dogs helped Kate immensely, there was one particular task that she credits for helping her cope with her grief: cleaning the kennels, which includes ensuring that every dog has a clean blanket to sleep on and a Nylabone to relieve stress. “There is something so therapeutic about it. To know that I was the one who helped make a dog feel safe and at home in their kennel after coming back from their evening walk was so moving to me.”

Evanston Animal Shelter is also where Kate met Melvin, her mini Australian Shepherd mix. “He’s just the best dog. I can’t even put into words how much I love him. My experience as a volunteer at Evanston Animal Shelter legitimately changed my life.” 

Kate and Melvin exploring Chicago

Serving the Community

Even after their shifts come to an end, Evanston Animal Shelter’s staff and volunteers are always thinking about ways to help animals and the people who love them in their greater communities.

After coming home from work one evening this past August, Branden, a longtime cat volunteer, noticed a strange smell and clouds of smoke billowing from a neighboring apartment’s window. “My stomach dropped, and a rush of instincts set in as they usually do when switched to fight or flight,” he recalls.

Branden called the Evanston fire department and contacted the shelter when he realized that there were four animals trapped inside the burning apartment. Firefighters rescued and supplied oxygen to the pets and emergency veterinarians treated them for smoke inhalation.

Thanks to Branden’s quick thinking and Evanston Animal Shelter’s custodial program, two dogs were cared for by shelter staff until their owner was settled into a new home, and their medical bills were completely covered. Between 2016-2018, Evanston Animal Shelter helped the families of 34 animals through their custodial program.

Combating Compassion Fatigue

Adoptable kittens getting some playtime

With so much happening at the shelter at all times, it can be easy to experience burnout. Nancy, the shelter’s feline director and adoption counselor, combats compassion fatigue by dedicating one day a week to herself. “I try to do something fun or just shut off my phone for a little bit. This work is constant, but I remind myself that I can’t do everything all the time,” she says. But even though working in animal welfare can be demanding, she says she hopes that people realize that it’s not depressing. “It’s anything but. You’re the one who gets to be a part of their second chance.”