AVMA convention-goers can lend a hand to New Orleans animal shelters

Shelters often overlooked in rebuilding efforts
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Men pushing wheelbarrows
"Voluntourism" is a growing trend combining travel and volunteer work. Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has been a hot spot for such altruistic trips. AVMA members and their families attending the Association's Annual Convention in New Orleans this July will help the city by refurbishing four area animal shelters.

Attendees of the AVMA Annual Convention in New Orleans this July will have the opportunity to roll up their sleeves to help rehabilitate area animal shelters still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

On July 17-18, just before the first day of the convention on July 19, up to 100 volunteers will refurbish animal shelters in four city parishes identified by the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"Knowing what kind of tragedy and hardship the people and the animals endured as a result of Katrina, we thought what better way to give back than leverage our convention to help repair some of the damage that was done," explained David Little, director of the AVMA Convention and Meeting Planning Division.

Adding a philanthropic project to the AVMA convention experience had been in the works for a couple years, added Malyssa Sopko, assistant director of the division. Given the ongoing recovery efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans, the site of the 2008 convention was the perfect place to begin the project. "What better place to roll this out?" Sopko said.

Many details have yet to be finalized, but the following projects have been arranged so far: at the Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter, volunteers will build an outside cat holding area and repaint parts of the facility; at the St. Charles Parish Animal Shelter, volunteers will repaint the surgical suite and seal concrete floors; and at the Plaquemines Parish Animal Control, volunteers will reseal several indoor and outdoor holding kennels.

At press time in late February, the needs of St. Bernard Parish Animal Shelter were not yet known. The parish was among the hardest hit areas during the 2005 storms, and the shelter is reportedly housed in an antiquated building.

Animal shelter staff usually have little time to do minor repairs and touch-up jobs because their first priority is taking care of the animals, according to Kathryn Destreza, chief humane officer of the Louisiana SPCA. "It's really hard to be able to step back to work on projects you know need to get done because things are always coming up that demand your immediate attention," Destreza said.

In the campaign to rebuild New Orleans, the city's animal shelters are often overlooked. "Normally, they're the lowest priority," Destreza explained. "And the further we get away from Katrina, the lower the shelters get on everyone's list."

Building supplies for two of the projects will have to be donated because the facilities lack the funds to cover such expenses. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation is providing transportation to and from the work sites, along with breakfast, lunch, and T-shirts for volunteers.

Many animal shelters are under-funded but those in New Orleans are especially in need, observed AVMF vice chair, Dr. Bruce Little. This project is an opportunity for the AVMA and AVMF to aid the important work the shelters are doing in the recovering city while also giving Association members and their families a chance to lend a hand. "Volunteers will take away a sense of accomplishment," Dr. Little noted.

AVMA members and their families can sign up for one or both days on the convention registration form; children must be 13 years of age or older to participate. Space is limited, and several spots have already been filled, according to Sopko, who expects there won't be enough space to accommodate everyone.

For additional information, contact Malyssa Sopko at msopkoatavma [dot] org or call (847) 285-6739. Those interested in donating funds to the project should contact Lisa Tommelein, AVMF director of development, at ltommeleinatavma [dot] org, or call (847) 285-6690.