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AWLA: Inspiring an Interest in Animals for Alexandrians of All Ages
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AWLA: Inspiring an Interest in Animals for Alexandrians of All Ages

Bella reads to Blue, while he shows his appreciation for her book selection.

Bella reads to Blue, while he shows his appreciation for her book selection. Photo courtesy of the AWLA

Bella enters the cat adoption room with books in hand, stopping by each enclosure to take a peek at its resident. Fifth-grader Bella decides on Blue, a senior Russian Blue who is watching patiently from his bed. She settles down on the floor next to him, and he rubs his cheeks against the book “Too Many Carrots.” As she begins to read, he settles back into his bed and watches her closely as she flips through each page.

“We are not ready to get another pet right now,” says Lorena, mother of Bella and her sister, Mackenzie, “but this is another way for them to spend time with animals. In the past the girls have collected towels and blankets that they brought to the shelter to donate, and they were really excited when they heard about this program.” Mackenzie, a seventh-grader, also enjoys visiting the cats to read and enjoy the feline company.

Both girls are volunteers with the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria’s (AWLA) Book Buddies program, one of the organization’s many offerings to introduce young people to animal sheltering and responsible pet ownership. Book Buddies provides students in grades 3 through 12 with the chance to practice their reading skills while offering enrichment and socialization to cats at the shelter. Some felines unwind to the sound of someone reading to them and may even take a quick catnap by their volunteer’s side, while other cats prefer to interact with their Book Buddy.

Lana Larson, the AWLA’s youth programs educator, has been supporting the expansion of these youth volunteer programs. Since redesigning the AWLA’s popular summer camp program in 2017, Larson has helped redevelop shelter youth offerings like birthday parties, Scout programs and even at-home projects, all promoting animal welfare and supporting shelter animals. Larson incorporates her training as a fourth-grade teacher into planning lessons and activities for the different age groups who take part in these programs. Her unique perspective as an educator and experience in the animal sheltering environment allows her to reach an audience of volunteers eager to learn more about helping animals in need.

"These types of programs plant the seeds in young adults that will ultimately grow into a love and respect for all types of animals," Larson says. “These children will grow into teens and adults who continue to foster this respect and share it with others.”

This past summer, Larson oversaw the shelter’s summer camps, with lessons oriented to children with ages ranging from 6 through 13. During the week campers learned about animal care at the shelter, met staff members who shared their experiences working with animals and heard from special guests who expanded their knowledge of animal welfare in the community. “It’s never too early to teach a child about animal interaction,” Larson explains.

The AWLA’s youth volunteer programs provide opportunities throughout the year, some of which allow them to help shelter animals without ever leaving their home. These at-home projects include creating animal enrichment items such as cardboard scratchers and ribbon wand toys for cats and no-sew fleece blankets for animals of all sizes. Volunteers can find a list of projects and instructions on the AWLA’s website and can even earn school service hours for their efforts.

Throughout the year, Larson leads workshops for Scout groups and helps with birthday parties for animal lovers ages eight and older. On Columbus Day, Larson and AWLA Director of Operations Jessica Almond organized a Teen Volunteer Event, where students ages 13 through 17 could assist with animal care, working alongside staff and adult volunteers to get the shelter animals prepped for visiting hours.

Almond, who has been working with AWLA volunteers since 2017, sees these service day events as the organization’s next big step for getting youth volunteers involved with helping animals. “I'm excited about the launch of our service day programs and hope more students can become involved,” she says. “I would love to see the program continue to develop to provide more ways for students to learn about the shelter and animal welfare.”

As the AWLA prepares for the next Kongs-giving, a family-friendly holiday event where volunteers of all ages prepare treats and toys for shelter animals, Larson is also looking for new, meaningful ways for young people to connect with the shelter and its residents. If your young learner is looking for more ways to get involved and help Alexandria’s Animals, visit our website at AlexandriaAnimals.org/YouthPrograms or contact us at Volunteer@AlexandriaAnimals.org.

The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, which operates the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter on contract with the City of Alexandria, is an independent, local, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The AWLA is committed to ending animal homelessness, promoting animal welfare, and serving as an educational resource for the City of Alexandria community. More information is at AlexandriaAnimals.org.