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Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Rachel Herman & PAWS NY Decided To Change Our World

It feels so good to be dedicating my life to making a positive impact on the lives of people and animals. It doesn’t feel like a job; I wake up every day excited to go to work. If you have an idea for how you can make a positive impact, you should absolutely explore it. Don’t assume it already exists or that someone else will do it. Take action. The worst that happens is you wasted some time; the best that happens is you make the world a better place. The risk is 100% worth it!

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Herman.

Rachel Herman is the Founder and Executive Director of Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) NY, a nonprofit she started ten years ago aimed at helping to keep seniors and other vulnerable New Yorkers together with their pets. Ms. Herman worked in Development at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for several years before transitioning to PAWS NY full-time in January 2012. She also served as Secretary on the Board of Directors for Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. As founder of PAWS NY, Ms. Herman brings her vision to the Board as well as her passion for protecting the welfare of animals. Some of her professional accomplishments include: New Yorker of the Week (2014), 40 Under 40 Rising Stars in the Nonprofit World (2015), and Holiday Hero by The New York Times (2016). Ms. Herman received her B.A. in Political Science with a minor in Crime and Justice from the University of Michigan and her Master of Public Administration from NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, where she specialized in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. Ms. Herman currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two daughters, and their two rescue cats.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in a small town about an hour north of New York City. I’m the youngest of three, and I spent much of my time playing sports or watching my brothers play sports. My parents actually met while walking dogs in New York City, and we always had multiple pets. I was (and continue to be) a huge animal lover. Throughout high school and college, my plan was to become a lawyer. I never thought it was possible to find a career that involved my love for animals.

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Our organization is trying to help vulnerable New York City residents overcome the physical and financial limitations they face in caring for their animal companions so that they can keep their pets and continue to benefit from this important relationship. At PAWS NY, we envision a society that honors the emotional, physical, and social benefits of the human-animal bond, where a lack of ability never threatens to separate humans from their animal companions, and where the physical, emotional, and social benefits of the human-animal bond are incorporated into health care and social services.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

The idea for PAWS NY first began in the winter of 2008 while I was in graduate school, pursuing my MPA at NYU. On my walk to class, I noticed a young homeless couple and their dog sitting outside of a local grocery store. As an animal lover, I felt empathy for this family, knowing that they likely were giving up a warm bed at night in order to remain together, as homeless shelters don’t allow pets. It was heartbreaking to think about, and despite the occasional change or pet food I donated, I didn’t feel like my contributions were truly making a difference. I began to ask myself questions such as: “Are there other people in New York City that have pets but struggle to provide adequate care for them? And how can I provide more meaningful assistance?” After some research, I identified that there was a huge need for pet care assistance and no organization in New York City to provide for that need. More than a year later, on November 11th, 2009, our first volunteer visited our first client.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

As I described earlier, it was seeing a young, homeless couple that sparked the idea for PAWS NY ten years ago. I couldn’t stop thinking about the sacrifices they were making due to the strong bond they shared with their pet. I began to think about what our pets mean to us and about the people who may benefit from the companionship of a pet but who may also be struggling with the care of that animal due to barriers that come from age, disability, or illness. I thought about how difficult it must be to love your pet, but over time, begin to face obstacles that prevent you from taking care of him in the same way you once had. How heartbreaking would it be to love your pet like family but to feel like you might need to give him up because you can no longer do simple things like take him outside for a walk or bend down to clean the litterbox?

I did some research and could not identify an existing organization in New York City that was exclusively dedicated to providing the resources needed to help vulnerable New Yorkers to remain with their pets. It was then that I decided I wanted to harness my passion and degree to make a difference, and I founded PAWS NY. Admittedly, I am a competitive person (mostly with myself), and once I started the process, I couldn’t allow myself to stop, as I wanted to succeed in helping as many people and pets as possible. I felt a lot of pressure not to let anyone down. During the first few years, I finished grad school and began working full-time for a large animal welfare organization. PAWS NY was my passion project, and I dedicated nights, weekends, and my lunch hour to building the organization. In January 2012, I took the risk of leaving a stable job that I loved to pursue PAWS NY full-time. I’m typically a risk-averse person, so this was not an easy decision for me. However, not taking the chance meant giving up, and I knew there was no way to continue building the organization if I couldn’t commit more of my time. I can’t believe it’s now been over a decade. I feel so lucky to wake up every day and do this meaningful work.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

There isn’t one perfect way to go about starting an organization, and every organization is unique and has its own needs and considerations. However, I’ve listed four steps that I think would be helpful in getting your project started:

(1) Find a mentor, partner, or friend who you can bounce ideas off of: When I first came up with the idea for PAWS, I was hyper-focused and talked about it all of the time. I had endless conversations with my boyfriend at the time, JR (now my husband who was/is a founding Board Member). It’s helpful to have the support and perspective of someone else when you’re developing your thoughts. This person can provide feedback and offer new ideas that you may not have considered. JR helped me come up with the organization’s name and mission statement, and he helped me with the business plan. Without his support and guidance, it’s possible that I would have felt too overwhelmed by all of my ideas.

(2) Be intentional but also nimble: You’ll want to think carefully about what you want to do and how you want to do it. I recommend drafting a business plan to help keep you focused. However, the likelihood that everything will go exactly as planned is nearly impossible, so you’ll also want to be nimble so that you can adapt and pivot when needed.

(3) Know your strengths (and identify the gaps): It’s impossible to build an organization on your own, so you’ll need to rely on others if you want the organization to succeed. It’s important to know what your own strengths are and how they can be of value in the process, and then you need to bring in others who can fill in the gaps. This is particularly important when forming your Board of Directors, who are often volunteering their time to fulfill the role that staff typically would at a more established organization.

(4) Do your research: In order to accomplish your goal, there is paperwork and other administrative responsibilities that are needed. Make sure to do your research so you understand all that is required of you. If something falls through the cracks, you could lose your status as a charitable organization. While you may prefer to focus on building your programs, don’t forget about the details.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Not long after I started the organization, something unexpected happened. An elderly client of ours lived alone with his dog Roscoe. He had a volunteer who would visit four times a week to walk Roscoe. One day, the volunteer told the client that he would be going on vacation. He was scheduled to walk Roscoe again the following evening, but he asked if it would be okay for him to arrive earlier in the day since he was heading out of town. The client said “of course.” The next morning our volunteer arrived on time. He knocked on the door, but there was no answer. He then called the client, and also no answer. He tried again several times. The volunteer was concerned because the client rarely left his home, and they had just seen each other the day before. Our volunteer found the building’s super, who proceeded to open the client’s door with his key. They found the client unconscious in his bed, and his dog was lying down next to him. The volunteer called 911, and the client was rushed to the hospital. The client had apparently suffered a stroke over night, and he was in critical condition. A few days later I answered the phone, and it was the client calling me from the hospital. He was going to be okay, which truly felt like a miracle.

This situation completely shifted the way I think about PAWS NY and the role we play in the lives of those we set out to help. I started the organization as a way to provide pet care assistance in order to help maintain the important relationships shared between people and their animals. What I did not consider was the relationships that would form between our volunteers and human clients, and the importance of the visits given the increased isolation of our clients. I now know that the bond formed between client and volunteer is powerful and potentially the most valuable aspect of the work we do. Not only are we helping people to keep their pets, who are often their sole companion, we are also now introducing them to a team of committed volunteers who visit them throughout the week. Beautiful friendships are formed. I believe the story about Roscoe and his guardian is a perfect example of our organization’s motto, which is Helping People by Helping Pets.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I wouldn’t call this a funny mistake, but early on, I wanted to do everything. It was just me on the ground; I met all the clients, I trained all volunteers, and I did all the scheduling. In the early days, we didn’t have the technology we now have to manage our programs; when a volunteer couldn’t make a volunteer shift, they would email me to let me know. The thought of a missed shift was upsetting to me, and I didn’t want to let a client down. So, instead of telling a client that there was no one to walk their dog that day, I would show up myself. I operated like this for the first couple of years, when we were still a very small organization. However, this was completely unsustainable, and as PAWS NY grew, I realized that I needed to come to terms with the fact that it would be impossible to meet the needs of everyone 100% of the time, and that as the leader of the organization, it was unrealistic for me to be filling in the gaps when volunteers had to cancel.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

As I mentioned earlier, my husband JR was, and continues to be, my biggest cheerleader. We complement one another, as I tend to get excited about big picture ideas and he’s great at breaking ideas down into more actionable items. If it had been just me, I would have likely tried to move faster due to my excitement; he constantly reminded me to think in “baby steps.” Big ideas can often be overwhelming; it’s hard to know where to start. Ten years later, and the “baby steps” approach is still one I live by; it helps translate big ideas into tangible actionable steps.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

It’s hard to pick just one person because every person we have helped means so much; however, one former client named Arnold stands out. Arnold was 91 when he passed away in 2018, leaving behind his 17-year-old dog Jade, who had been his best friend and companion for almost 20 years. Arnold adopted Jade in 2001, three years after his wife had died. Jade was five months old. Almost ten years later, at the age of 83, Arnold found himself in need of help. His health and mobility were declining, and he needed to find help caring for Jade so that the two could remain together as a family. He came to PAWS NY, and we put together a team of volunteers who provided daily walks for Jade. Over the years, our volunteers became like family to Arnold, celebrating birthdays and other milestones. In the eight years that followed our initial meeting, we provided nearly 4,000 visits to help Arnold and Jade. We also provided financial help with vet care, facilitated care for Jade when Arnold was hospitalized, donated pet food, and more. When Arnold passed away in 2018, his volunteers came together to honor him, and our organization helped to make sure that Jade, then 17, was placed in a loving home.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I’d love to answer this question by saying (1) Donate, (2) Volunteer, and (3) Advocate, but I feel that would be missing the point, as I think the question is asking something bigger than that. In an ideal world, PAWS NY would not exist. We are here because there is a need in the community and no other organization/system to meet that need. While there is no way to prevent people from getting older, I do feel that as a society, we can do more to support our vulnerable neighbors. We can take care of one another. We can look out for one another. The more we help those around us, the less support they will need from organization’s like mine.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

The 5 things I wish someone told me when I first started:

  1. Understand what it means to be an entrepreneur: Starting any venture, whether it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit, takes an extraordinary amount of time and focus. You will have long nights and you will have to make personal sacrifices in order to see your vision through. It’s a big commitment, but if you’re truly passionate about your cause, it is that passion that will keep you going.
  2. Delegate: Use your network, and delegate when you can. It’s impossible to do everything on your own, so make sure you find people you trust and who have skills that complement your own.
  3. Beware of Burnout / Take Time for Yourself: It’s so easy to burn out. Not only are you passionate about the mission, but because you started it yourself, you will most likely feel a sense of obligation to your constituents that makes it difficult for you to find a healthy balance between work and personal. It’s important to remember that self-care and taking time for yourself will help you be more productive; it’s not selfish and it will help everyone. Whether it’s yoga, meditation, a massage, or simply going to bed early, find what helps you and incorporate it into your routine as best you can. I realize it’s easier said than done, and I’m not great at following through on this, but the more we say it, the more likely we are to do it!
  4. You’ll Need to Get Into the Weeds: When you’re starting a nonprofit, it’s because you have a big idea. However, in order for an organization to succeed, there are many tasks you’ll need to take on that you wouldn’t consider a part of the job description and aren’t necessarily things you know how to do. When you’re on your own, it’s up to you to get everything done. Examples of things I had to do include: building our website, finding insurance, managing finances, answering the phone, event planning, managing social media, and more. It should also be noted that many of these are items that I am still responsible for ten years later!
  5. Trust Yourself: There have been so many times over the last ten years where I felt I had no idea what I was doing. When you start a nonprofit, you have to learn so many new things. It’s easy to get discouraged by something that feels difficult or impossible. However, it’s your vision and your drive that helped you start the organization, and while it’s important to surround yourself with an amazing team of people, you should also trust yourself and your instincts.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It feels so good to be dedicating my life to making a positive impact on the lives of people and animals. It doesn’t feel like a job; I wake up every day excited to go to work. If you have an idea for how you can make a positive impact, you should absolutely explore it. Don’t assume it already exists or that someone else will do it. Take action. The worst that happens is you wasted some time; the best that happens is you make the world a better place. The risk is 100% worth it!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This is such a difficult question because it’s hard to narrow it down to one person. However, I would love to have lunch with Ellen DeGeneres. She is funny, smart and kind. She’s an animal lover and philanthropist, and like me, she enjoys playing games. She seems to have a way with people that immediately makes them feel comfortable. I think enjoying lunch with Ellen would feel like having lunch with a close friend.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can follow PAWS NY at @pawsny on Instagram and Facebook, and I can be found on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hermanrachel/.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!