Congratulations to Kathie Meier, Heather Bowker, and the Animal-Assisted Therapy Program!
Each was nominated for the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership’s Heart of Marin award: Kathie for Volunteer of the Year, Heather for Excellence in Board Leadership, and the Animal-Assisted Therapy Program for Excellence in Innovation. Please read on for their respective Heart of Marin nominations.
Kathie Meier: All of the 675 volunteers at Marin Humane embody the organization’s mission, but one in particular stands out as the most stellar of all. Kathie Meier came to Marin Humane in 1999, specifically to volunteer for our Animal-Assisted Programs with her dog, Kristie. Over the years, Kathie has volunteered with five large yet gentle Bernese Mountain Dogs. She currently volunteers with two dogs, Charlotte and Heidi (also Bernese Mountain Dogs).
Kathie volunteers in all aspects of our Animal-Assisted Programs. She and her dogs visit schools, hospitals, libraries, and outreach fairs in the community, as well as programs held at Marin Humane’s Novato campus. In addition to her regular assignments, Kathie is one of the first to step up to volunteer whenever we need someone for a special task. There have been at least 20 times over the last year when programs would not have happened without Kathie taking on an additional assignment.
Her love of animals and people is apparent in all her work. She is admired by the staff at Marin Humane and by her fellow volunteers. As a resident of Marin, she and her dogs are quite the community celebrities. They’re recognized by the family members of patients she and her dogs have visited in hospitals, by children from her visits to their schools, and by the many children who have attended the Marin Humane summer camp over the years.
On average, an Animal-Assisted Team works 3-5 hours per week. Over the past 12 months, Kathie has volunteered a total of 430 hours, an average of 36 hours per month! She and her dogs served approximately 7,500 people!
Kathie embodies our mission of transforming lives – of both human and animals. Her compassionate approach to our unique outreach assignments makes her (and her canine helpers) one of the best ambassadors for Marin Humane.
This past year, Kathie and her dogs, Charlotte and Heidi made weekly visits to the waiting room at Marin Cancer Center where the dogs worked their magic comforting patients, their families, and hospital staff. This is one the most meaningful assignments for Kathie because she was a patient there two years ago. She knows firsthand the challenges these patients face and how the presence of a loving, affectionate dog can bring great comfort. Now she returns to the center to offer hope and ease the pain and worry of others.
One of our newest venues for Animal-Assisted Teams began in April of 2019 at the 911 Dispatch Center at the Marin County Sheriff’s department. Kathie and her dogs are regulars with the hardworking staff. She loves this assignment because she can see how much the staff enjoys the break from their stressful jobs with joy brought by her dogs.
During the school year, Kathie is a frequent visitor to a variety of Marin schools. Along with her dogs, Kathie brings specifically-crafted lessons to the special education classes at several schools, including Dixie Elementary, Redwood High School, and Terra Linda High School. Kathie inspires the students with specialized humane education lessons she created for these unique classrooms. The lessons include pet first aid, interactive games, and a photography and scrapbook lesson. She also brings seasonal crafts for the students to make. She purchases and donates all the materials needed, as well as her time. Kathie’s visits provide a unique way for students to learn lessons about caring for animals and being a compassionate member of the community. The lessons are very motivating to these students who adore her and the dogs. The teachers are grateful for Kathie’s volunteer time, as her dogs help to motivate the students to participate. These unique hands-on lessons paired with Kathie’s dogs are ideal for the students as they are engaged and learning.
Kathie, Charlotte, and Heidi also participate in our exceptional reading program, Share-a-Book. Children in schools and libraries read to the dogs as a way to build confidence. Charlotte and Heidi are especially good listeners when it comes to kids who are struggling with reading, as they provide a nonjudgmental, calming audience. Between school and summer programs, children read to her and her dogs over 60 times a year!
This past year, Kathie has volunteered additional time at Saint Raphael’s School to work with students who are English Language Learners. Last year, she read with one student individually and after the teacher noticed such great progress, she asked Kathie to do more. The opportunity to read to a dog helped the children relax, gain confidence, and enjoy reading. Kathie is patient and compassionate with the children, coaching and encouraging them to read to the dogs. The dogs love being read to – so our Share-a-Book program is a win-win!
Another example of Kathie’s positive impact occurred at the end of the past school year. After school was out, she found a way to continue reading with one student. She didn’t want the summer break to stop his progress. Kathie met him at the local library throughout the summer. This fall, the teacher at Saint Raphael’s asked Kathie if she could read with more English Language Learner students. Kathie added this to her busy schedule, along with reading to the class, on her visits. Kathie spends extra time each week at the school to be sure the three students get more reading time with her dogs.
Kathie is a critical component of a two other specialized programs at Marin Humane: Jumping for Joy is a five-week class for children on the autism spectrum. The children work with the Animal-Assisted Therapy teams, learn about dog agility training, and get to teach a dog to run through a canine agility course. Both of Kathie’s dogs are trained to be a part of this extraordinary program. This past spring, Kathie volunteered in three Jumping for Joy classes, working with her dogs to bring a fun and safe activity to these children. The kids love to interact with the dogs and run with them through the agility course. Kathie attends each week to work with and support the children as well as serve as the program photographer, capturing the joy of these kids as they work with the dogs. Kathie’s photos are shared with the families so they can see their child’s participation in the program and they’re used to promote the program to even more families.
Kindness Club is a program we present to all classes at the Irene Hunt School. This school is part of Side by Side (formerly Sunny Hills Children’s Services), that supports children with emotional and behavioral challenges. These special lessons teach students about the work of Marin Humane and kindness to animals and people. Kathie and her dogs were a part of each classroom’s lessons this school year.
When school is out, Kathie is still very busy, as she participates in our Marin Humane summer camp! Three times a week for eight weeks, she visits the Novato campus with Charlotte and Heidi as part of “Dog of the Day,” Dog Training lessons, and the “Breeds and Needs” lessons. Our camp lessons are fun for the campers but they also teach them about proper pet care and safety for animals. Charlotte even plays a small keyboard for the kids!
Kathie also volunteers her time and talents in other areas of our organization. She’s a skilled photographer and shares her talent with children. Twice yearly, we host an animal photography workshop at Marin Humane for youth. After learning the basics of photographing animals, she leads them around campus to practice their newly-acquired skills on adoption animals, as well as her dogs. After class, she creates notecards for each student from their favorite shots. The class is coordinated and taught by Kathie. She donates extra cameras to have on hand for kids who may not have one and she gives each child a book on photography as part of their participation in the class. Kathie creates online galleries for each participant and donates all the materials and her time. These classes regularly fill up!
Kathie has also inspired her own family to donate their time to Marin Humane! Her nephew and his wife are expert gingerbread bakers. Thanks to Kathie, every December we offer Gingerbread Doghouse workshops for kids. Kathie attends with her dogs while her family oversees the crafting of the houses. Kathie purchases and donates all the ingredients and supplies to make the gingerbread houses and the decorations. Last December, Kathie offered to sponsor two workshops on the same day and each one sold out! The children learned about the work of Marin Humane, were treated to a tour of the campus, and left with their delicious dog house or cat condo!
As if all these activities didn’t provide enough impact and inspiration, Kathie and her dogs are special guests at our dog-themed birthday parties held on campus. She has two special pairs of Happy Birthday glasses which she uses for a photo of the birthday child and one of her dogs. These birthday parties are fun but they’re also educational opportunities and the party revenue provides key support for our mission and programs.
More recently, in September, we were called on by the Novato School District to provide grief support at the Loma Verde School. There had been a horrible accident the previous weekend and one of their students was in critical condition. Within hours, our Animal Ambassador Teams were at the school assisting the counselors with their support to the students. Kathie was there with her dogs providing much needed comfort.
Kathie and Charlotte were also a part of our award-winning table at the Marin Senior Fair in October. This was her 9th year of participating with her dogs at the Senior Fair. We believe they were the main reason for receiving the award!
In addition to all of this, Kathie is a mentor to new volunteers. All volunteer Animal Ambassador Teams at Marin Humane attend a seven-week class as part of their training. Kathie shares her experience volunteering for our various programs and offers great tips to make the work more rewarding for everyone. In 2019, Kathie spoke to two classes, sharing her knowledge and inspiring 16 new volunteers. She has been our guest speaker at two to four classes a year for 10 years, sharing her wisdom and helping to ensure new volunteer Animal Ambassador Teams are prepared for the work. One new volunteer told us: “Kathie’s advice was practical and helped me think about what venue was best for my dog and me.”
Finally, Kathie generously supports all the work of Marin Humane by being one of our major financial donors.
Kathie is beloved by her fellow volunteers. To celebrate her 20th year of volunteering, they collected funds to have one of the “My Mutt” posters made of her two dogs and displayed at a Pet Food Express store. She is greatly admired by everyone for her dedication, generosity, and tireless compassion; there is no doubt that Kathie is a great role model for selflessly giving so much to others to make Marin a more humane community.
Heather Bowker: Heather has served in a leadership role on Marin Humane’s Board of Directors for the past eight years. She is a strong leader who is part of a dedicated and compassionate set of Marin Humane board members. The Marin Humane board collectively has seen Marin Humane through a series of challenges over this past year: turning the Novato shelter into an animal evacuation center during the recent power outage and Kincade fire, in revamping the strategic plan, conducting an in-depth review of 50-year-old facilities, and developing a plan for their modernization. Heather has been particularly invaluable as we’ve navigated community issues such as the proposed (inhumane) sterilization of deer in Belvedere, joining a coalition to fight the slaughter of wild horses and promoting the need for peaceful coexistence with coyotes and other wildlife. She has attracted donors as well as new board members, and as part of succession planning, she has mentored new board members and officers. Heather has served as a strong liaison with staff and volunteers by speaking at All Staff Meetings, having a regular presence on campus and volunteering her time at Marin Humane events.
Here are more specific examples:
- Heather shares her expertise in organizational development at every meeting, helping board and staff members actively engage in productive discussions and achieve the best solutions. Her philosophy is to ask the tough questions to achieve better outcomes, but always with collaboration as the goal. She brings wisdom, humor, and clear thinking to every discussion.
- Heather played a key role in helping us craft our new five year strategic plan, which was launched this year. The focus of our new strategic plan is ending pet homelessness across the Bay Area by 2030.
- Heather has been an active member of our facilities committee. This committee worked with an architectural firm to update our master plan, thereby ensuring that our facilities can respond to the changing needs of shelter animals and the community.
- Heather is tireless in supporting the organization, attending many staff and volunteer events. She has presented the new strategic plan to staff and helped build an understanding of the strategic goals.
- Heather advocates for animals in support of Marin Humane’s mission – she gathered signatures in the community to ensure Prop 12, the Animal Cruelty initiative for farm animals, was included on the ballot in the Nov 2018 election. Marin Humane was part of a coalition of organizations supporting this initiative.
- During Heather’s tenure as board chair and past board chair, we were successful in increasing our board from 11 to 14 members. She was directly involved in helping interview, recruit, and onboard all these new members during the past 12 months.
- Heather has been actively involved in every new board member orientation (helping to design the curriculum as well as presenting), and has mentored newcomers to ensure their easy assimilation onto the board.
- Heather has actively coached the new Board Chair and new Officers. She is always available to provide leadership and guidance.
- Heather has been instrumental in designing the curriculum for the annual board retreats, and this year’s retreat focused on the board’s role in cultivating major donors. This session was pivotal in helping board members understand their role as ambassadors for the organization, and their responsibilities in engaging donors. We have major goals ahead of us to raise funds for our facilities expansion and the board will play a critical role.
- Heather was instrumental in redesigning our board meetings to ensure sufficient time is focused on board discussion around strategic issues and that all questions are addressed and ideas shared. Board attendance is consistently high, as members see the value of well-run, well-designed meetings.
- On occasion, when very different perspectives were raised at board meetings, Heather actively facilitated discussions to ensure all voices were heard, and to work through what could have resulted in polarizing conflicts to arrive at decisions the entire board could support.
- Heather has been an active and productive member of five board committees – executive, facilities, finance, governance and strategic planning. She has rarely missed a meeting and is a role model for being well prepared and actively engaged. Agenda topics are well-researched and she is diligent with follow-up.
- Heather’s expertise in human resources and compensation has been instrumental in ensuring a thorough approach for assessing the CEO’s performance and setting her compensation. Heather coached the incoming board chair in conducting a 360-degree feedback survey among the board and senior staff (achieving 100% participation). She developed a comprehensive report to share with the CEO and the board. She also reviewed market data to create recommendations to the executive committee regarding the CEO’s compensation.
- She is an excellent editor and grammarian on important reports and documents.
- Heather has worked seamlessly with the CEO to support her efforts and is also a sounding board for the CEO in helping think through operational challenges and opportunities.
- When issues with board members are raised by the CEO, Heather has worked diligently to address them with the respective parties, and ensure that board members are always performing at their best. She strikes a good balance of supporting board members, but also holding them accountable.
- Heather goes out of her way to be supportive to staff and volunteers, thanking them and acknowledging their efforts and accomplishments. She has worked hard to present a human face to the board, for those who might not have regular contact with the board.
- Heather is always ready to help out and no job is too difficult or too dirty! For example, when more volunteers were needed to help load or unload animals into vans for an adoption pet fair or transfers to and from other shelters, she was at the shelter to be a part of the team.
- Heather volunteers as a foster parent to homeless German Shepherds with German Shepherd Rescue.
- Heather is dedicated to developing relationships with donors, whether serving drinks in the VIP lounge at Woofstock, attending donor-cultivation events, meeting with major donors to discuss their interests and passions, or participating in donor acknowledgement efforts. As a result of Heather’s active involvement, two major donors became board members.
Animal-Assisted Therapy Program for Excellence in Innovation: Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) has become widely-recognized as a powerful tool in comforting the sick or those who’ve experienced trauma. Marin Humane has long offered this valuable service to the community. Our AAT programs are carried out by volunteer “Animal Ambassador Teams.” These dedicated volunteers bring their specially trained pets to visit people throughout Marin, including hospitals, senior communities, schools, libraries, homes, and at community events. Animal Ambassador Teams bring joy and companionship to many.
Currently, 72 volunteers, 80 dogs, two cats, one rabbit, and two goats are in the program. In the past year, our Animal-Assisted Therapy program has grown in new ways and demonstrated innovative applications. The following six examples make this program worthy of being nominated in the Excellence in Innovation Award.
Hospice/Bereavement: Drawing on the concept of bringing animals to visit patients in hospitals, Marin Humane brings AAT teams to visit those entering the last phase of life in hospice care. This truly powerful experience has brought comfort to those at the end of life, as well as families saying goodbye.
Animal-Assisted Therapy Teams visit a bereavement camp for kids called By the Bay Camp. All By the Bay campers have experienced loss – often of a parent or sibling – and the camp provides an opportunity to connect with other kids who’ve also experienced loss. For the past eight years we have been a part of this specialized camp experience. We bring eight to ten Animal Ambassador Teams to camp and this past year our teams provided “comfort time” in the evening to help kids settle in for bed. The teams visited each cabin, spending time with the children and counselors.
High School Wellness Center: This past year, Marin Humane’s Animal Ambassadors were invited to be a part of the Wellness Centers at Drake and Redwood High Schools. These are drop-in centers for students that provide a variety of support, including connection to a caring adult, self-care activities, health education and resources. On their weekly visits, our Animal Ambassadors add the connection of a loving dog for additional support. Students are more interested in coming to the centers when the teams are there and in turn, have an easier time accessing the services.
911 Dispatch Center: In April of this year, the dogs and their handlers started visiting 911 dispatchers at Marin County’s communications center. The dogs provide a brief respite from the dispatchers critically-important but very-stressful jobs. Marin Humane now has 13 different volunteer teams visiting the center each week. We have a specific schedule so all the employees from each shift have an opportunity for some comfort and stress relief provided by the volunteers and their wonderful dogs.
Support during Finals Weeks: Bringing AAT teams to students during finals weeks has expanded beyond our visits to students at Dominican University during finals; we now visit all public high schools in Marin. We’ve also started bringing our newest Animal Ambassadors, Moon and Mary, two goats! The simple comfort of being with an animal relaxes the students and gives them a much-needed break from studying.
Read-to-a-Cat: Studies have shown that reading programs which include dogs can help children improve their reading skills and more importantly, build confidence. Our ongoing partnership with Marin libraries expanded this past year to include Donny, an orange tabby, our first reading cat! Our 40 trained reading volunteers with their canine companions have been listening to and encouraging children to read at libraries and public and private schools for 15 years. Donny “listens” to kids read at the Corte Madera library once a month and if his schedule allows, his visits will expand to other libraries.
St. Vincent’s School for Boys Homework Club: Our teams visit the St. Vincent’s School for Boys, a residential program which provides compassionate care of abused, neglected, and traumatized boys, ages 7-18 years. Our AAT teams are a part of the homework club for the boys, supporting and comforting them while they do their homework. Our dogs help the boys motivate, focus on their school work, or just take a break and cuddle with a dog.
The structure of the Animal-Assisted Therapy Program allows us to deploy teams of animals and their guardians at a moment’s notice to a variety of environments and situations. Prospective volunteers and their dogs go through extensive training to ensure the “deployments” are right for those who receive these special visits and for the animals and volunteers themselves. The AAT teams are matched with the situation and their successes and any challenges are monitored.
The program also opens doors between Marin Humane and organizations throughout Marin County and strengthens the working relationships between them.
The ability to think and act nimbly in regard to this program has enabled us to quickly respond to our community’s needs. After receiving a call from an administrator at the Novato School District in the wake of the horrific traffic accident which claimed the life of a high school student, we were able to mobilize our Animal-Assisted Therapy Teams within hours to provide grief support to the students at school. The next day, the school’s counselor asked for more dogs because they made such an impact. She said that there were students who did not want to come to the library until they heard the dogs were there. Once they spent a little time with the dogs, they were willing to open up and speak with the counselors.
One of our volunteers (an RN) shared the following statement after she and her dog Rose visited the school: “I have worked with patients in physical pain but this was a new experience for me to see so much emotional pain. The feeling I got was identical. I suppose pain is pain – emotional or physical. To see a girl sobbing one minute and then smiling at Rose the next showed the powerful gift that our dogs give. There were many young men – boys really – and they easily reached out to Rose and cuddled her. It was a powerful experience and I am so thankful that Rose was able to give so much. She worked the room and approached anyone who looked up at her. She was exhausted after 50 minutes and headed for the door. The school receptionist looked at Rose and said, “Of course she is tired. Look at all the sorrow she has taken on to relieve the students.”
This past year we finalized an update to the seven-week course that prepares volunteers and their dogs to become Animal-Assisted Volunteer Teams for Marin Humane. All seven weeks are required and the volunteers and their dogs are introduced to the variety of situations and environments to access their readiness. The dogs must have a strong foundation of skills coming into the class and the desire to want to socialize and meet new people. Each week is unique and we observe and advise each volunteer individually. The volunteers must have a strong and secure bond with their dogs and be aware of their needs at all times. Our training program is one of the most comprehensive in the country. Other programs have skills tests the dogs must pass and orientations for the handlers. We work directly with the volunteer and dogs to ensure they are appropriate for the work. This firsthand knowledge is important to assuring they are assigned to the best possible venue. Each week the volunteers receive feedback on their progress and not all dogs and guardians pass the class. Our updated class includes new concepts in Animal-Assisted Programs, many focusing on the welfare of the animal volunteers. We have added more information on canine body language and teaching volunteers how to read their dog’s signals to be sure they are not stressed. Their canine companions should be enjoying the work as much as the participants are enjoying the interaction. The training program has a 75% graduation rate, our instructors rely on observing the dogs to determine if they are suited for the work and most importantly, if they are choosing to engage.
To keep in touch with the newest research and recommendations, the Community Engagement staff (which oversees the AAT programs) attended an international conference hosted by Pet Partners in San Antonio.
Pet Partners, formerly The Delta Society, is internationally-known for their expertise in the human-animal companion bond and programs that support them.
We believe it is vital that we spend quality time to train the volunteer teams, provide specific additional training for specialized programs (i.e. Hospice, the reading program), and provide continuing education to keep volunteers informed and prepared for the assignments. We cherish our volunteers and their amazing animal companions.