photographs by Heather Simmons
Junior KPAW kids discover animal care goes beyond playing with and grooming a pet.
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way its animals are treated." - Mahatma Gandhi
At nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, a time when most kids would be home watching cartoons or playing video games, eight children gather at the Humane Society of Memphis & Shelby County’s bright classroom space, concentrating intently on the dog and cat toys they make out of fleece scraps and sparkly pom-poms.
As participants of the Junior KPAW (Kids Promoting Animal Welfare), a program for 7- to 12-year-olds, classes meets quarterly to learn about animal welfare in an interactive environment.
“You’re not just learning about animals,” facilitator Kerry Sneed explains to the group, “You’re getting the information you need to be better members of the community.”
When Kerry Sneed left a 20-year career in nursing to work full-time at the Humane Society, she was trading one form of compassionate care for another. But with the junior volunteer program, she’s gained a new responsibility: teaching our youngest citizens how to be kind and compassionate toward all living creatures.
“I believe the way we treat animals is a direct indicator of what kind of person we are,” says Sneed, HSMSC’s community outreach and humane education manager. Through KPAW, Junior KPAW, and the Pet Cadet Camp programs, Sneed coordinates education for children from ages 6 to 17, though the proper care of animals isn’t her only focus.
“One of my big pushes is teaching how to be volunteers. If you decide to volunteer, you need to understand that you’re giving of yourself and it’s not your place or privilege to do what you want. It’s a selfless experience.”
Children and young adults don’t always come to this type of selflessness naturally. Seventeen-year-old volunteer and Junior KPAW counselor Brianna Siebert admits she didn’t begin her work at the Humane Society with noble intent. “I got a car and my mom said I needed to do something outside the house. I didn’t want to, so she put me in the car and drove me here. I was crying; I didn’t want to volunteer anywhere.” Almost immediately, however, her attitude changed. “I spent six hours here the first day. I’ve been back almost every day since.”
Over the course of the past year volunteering at HSMSC, Brianna has experienced a shift in her perspective that transcends animal welfare. “Once you realize that all of these animals have a story, it makes you think about other people differently. You never really know someone until you know his story. It makes me judge people less because they’re probably been through things and are doing the best they can.”
Teens have even more opportunities to get involved. The 13- to 17-year-olds in the KPAW program are responsible for many of the same tasks as adult volunteers, from cleaning kennels and washing windows to socializing and grooming the adoptable animals. Some are initially disappointed that it’s not a full-time puppy playground, but over time they recognize how important every task is in keeping animals healthy and happy.
Pet Cadet campers, who attend summer camp at the shelter, are encouraged to “adopt” an animal for the week. Just in that brief period, they can see a dramatic change. “There was a really shy dog named Thor,” Sneed says, “and he really came around in a short time. At the end of the week, the kids were just beaming."
Campers also gain a greater appreciation for their own pets. When Amy Williams’s daughters Alexa, age 12, and Josie, 6, returned from the summer camp, she immediately saw a shift in their focus.
“They’ve been more attentive,” Williams says. “We have a dog, Obie, who’s 12, and they began to notice him more. They’d get treats during the camp as prizes and they’d always bring them home for him.”
Sneed is passionate about the intrinsic rewards children earn from volunteering. “Kids need to recognize that volunteering is messy and a lot of hard work, but you’ll be a better person if you give of yourself to something you care about. “
Williams also acknowledges the benefits of working for the welfare of others, even those on four legs. “I believe animals feel sad and happy and all those types of things, so if children can treat them with kindness, they can do the same for people.”
Sneed’s work has taken her from classrooms to mobile adoption vans to neighborhood vaccination drives. In each setting, she meets with people willing to learn how to become better pet owners. At every age, the deep bond between humans and animals is a tangible force.
“There’s a connection I don’t fully understand, but when you tap into it, it creates a more positive, happier person,” Sneed says. “Animals help us recognize and appreciate life.”
For Amy Williams, the joy in her daughters was obvious. “It was an incredible experience. They looked forward to waking up in the morning, even though they had to get up at 6:30 a.m. during the summer. They felt a part of something.”
Part of the Humane Society’s mission is “to foster public sentiment of humanity and gentleness toward animals.” Sneed believes this mission spills over into the human population. “To be good to an animal, you have to think beyond yourself,” she says.
Sneed demonstrates that, at their heart, the youth education and volunteer programs are about nourishing each child’s capacity for kindness.
“It’s impossible to treat people cruelly and neglectfully if you can genuinely love an animal, and it goes both ways. If you’ve tapped into the part of yourself that lets you make sacrifices and be good to an animal, you can recognize the needs of the people around you.”