Identifiable by their green aprons and T-shirts, the Junior Volunteers, ages 14 to 17, are now working side by side with the shelter’s adult volunteer corps. They help socialize dogs, cats and other animals, perform shelter basics such as cleaning and laundry, and assist with special events.
“Junior Volunteers do so much of what the adult volunteers do, including volunteering remotely,” said Humane Educator Carly Mercer, who manages the program. “Although they don’t take dogs for walks, they can train and play with them in the yard, which helps prepare them for adoption.”
Although the AWLA offers a variety of humane education programs for students of all ages, this is the first extended, hands-on program for high school-aged students. “When I was a high school student, I tried to get experience working with animals but couldn’t because I wasn’t 18,” recalled Mercer. “This program allows students to come in and learn all about animals and earn service hours that also give them real-life experience that can be included on their resumes.”
The program’s mix of in-person and virtual trainings covers such topics as animal body language, animal training and safety and other aspects of animal welfare, such as supporting animals through fundraising and social media. Once trained, the volunteers are asked to commit to four hours a month for at least six months, just as adult volunteers are. Volunteers can choose the types of animal — such as dogs or cats — they prefer to work with.
"I liked how hands-on the training was,” said Ava, one of the first class of Junior Volunteers, who stopped to talk while socializing an adoptable rabbit named Clark and a guinea pig called TyTy. “You get to do stuff in person and practice, which better prepared me for my shifts. The program walks you through all three animal interactions (dogs, cats, and small animals) during your training. Then you can decide which animal interactions suit you best and who you want to work with."
The inaugural group of Junior Volunteers put their training into action by organizing a fundraising campaign called Juniors for Seniors. Photographs of the volunteers interacting with senior adoptable animals, promoted on social media and elsewhere, raised hundreds of dollars for Rosemary’s Fund for Senior Pets, which provides blood testing, special food, and veterinary care and equipment needed by older pets.
“Our Junior Volunteers commit to not only learn about animal welfare but also to make a direct impact in the lives of shelter animals,” said Echo Keif, AWLA’s Senior Manager of Volunteers and Community Events. “Whether they are helping a shy kitten gain confidence, using their clicker training skills to teach pups adoptable behavior or making enrichment items like veggie rolls for our guinea pigs, everything that they do makes a huge difference for animals and their well-being during their stay at the AWLA.”
Registration for the spring 2022 semester of the Junior Volunteer program filled in record time in January, but new training programs will open this fall and next spring.
The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria is a local 501(c)(3) organization that operates the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter, Alexandria's only open-access animal shelter. In response to the global pandemic, the AWLA has established a virtual adoption process and is operating a Pet Pantry that provides pet food and supplies to community members in need. The AWLA also offers assistance to Alexandrians with questions about wildlife and animals in the community. More information can be found at AlexandriaAnimals.org.