(ANIMAL WELFARE) PENNSYLVANIA — Rachel Cohen founded Hand2Paw less than two years ago to bring together homeless youth and animals and create a place for each to get training — job skills for the people, and obedience training for the animals. A natural result is a therapeutic experience for both as the love goes both ways. Read on to discover the impact H2P has had on its members in Philadelphia, and how you can start up your own chapter. Cohen already has plans to open another chapter in New York this summer!  — Global Animal

Rachel Cohen, Hand2Paw Founder and Executive Director. Photo Credit: Hand2Paw

USA Today, Shannon L. Peters

Bring Hand2Paw to your city by starting your own chapter. Click here to find out how.

Hand2Paw, launched less than 18 months ago to link up some of Philadelphia’s homeless young people with some of the city’s homeless animals, just last month added another Philly youth organization and shelter to its reach, and there’s talk of reaching out to additional cities next year.

The mastermind behind all this? Rachel Cohen, a 20-year-old biology major at the University of Pennsylvania, whose efforts were recognized last month when she won first place in the national Students in Service Awards. The $2,500 grant that comes with the honor will be used to create some paid internships this summer for the homeless youths who do their H2P thing at Philly shelters.

The non-profit was born of a “community living” course class assignment a couple of years back. Cohen had learned, to her dismay, that about one-fourth of the foster children who “age out” of the system at 18 years old (meaning no one gets paid for taking care of them any more) are left homeless (because without those payments, interest in providing a home vaporizes). An animal lover aware of the huge pet overpopulation problem in the city, Cohen imagined there must be a way for the homeless young people and homeless animals to help each other. Once the class was done, Cohen networked, grunt-worked and detail-worked the concept into reality.

When the program first began, the homeless youth, ages 18 to 22, came from Covenant House Pennsylvania, a 55-bed crisis center. Now a second facility — Project H.O.M.E. — has been added. The animals they do their volunteer work with are from the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society and the Philadelphia SPCA. Cohen calls it a “therapeutic experience” for the young people and animals alike. Moreover, the youths become “anti-cruelty voices” when they finish their time with the animals and return to hanging with their peers.

When the program first started, the young people visited a couple of times a month for two hours, during which they walked the dogs, spent time socializing dogs and cats, and did cleanup and bathing. Now it’s every week, and their responsibilities have expanded to include some basic training since, along the way, Cohen sought and received funding from DoSomething.org to hire a dog trainer who instructs the kids in how to teach the dogs simple commands, read their signals and have a better understanding of their needs.

Also along the way, the vet school at Penn supplied the trainees with scrubs so they don’t ruin the few clothes they have when mucking about with the animals

“The kids get some professional skills and have some fun — something many of them don’t get enough of,” says Cohen. “The animals get much-needed attention and obedience training,” which makes the shelter stay a little less stressful and improves their chances of enticing someone into adopting them more quickly.

The participating youths — five to eight of them visit the shelters every week — are developing work skills and behavior patterns that help them become employable, Cohen says. One of the youths, who worked with the program since its beginning, “found his passion,” she says, and was, in fact, so impressive in his devotion to the animals that he was recently hired to work in a pet boutique.

Cohen is confident the idea can work in any city with homeless youth, so H2P has placed on its website tips for folks around the country who hear about the program and want to start one.

What’s next? H2P will continue, she says, maybe even operating in nearby cities.

Professionally, Cohen is still somewhat undecided. She’s likely to pursue medicine, but whether that will be of the animal or human variety remains to be seen.

More USA Today: http://yourlife.usatoday.com/parenting-family/pet-talk/story/2011/4/Pet-Talk-Hand2Paw-helps-homeless-times-2/46288506/1