What do “Opportunity Youth” and Shelter Animals Have in Common?

And how can they support each other?

In Philadelphia, PA, children who are aging out of the foster care system, otherwise known as “opportunity youth”, are growing into their potential by helping animals. 

“Opportunity youth” is how Hand2Paw describes youth ages 17 to 22 with whom the organization interacts. By placing a positive adjective in front of “youth,” as opposed to common phrases like “at-risk youth,” the organization celebrates the potential of its members and encourages positive self-image. This is one of many steps toward self-efficacy that Hand2Paw aims to bring out in Philadelphia’s young people.

Penny Ellison is the Executive Director of Hand2Paw, an organization that helps “opportunity youth” gain life and work skills through animal shelter internships. She says that “opportunity youth” looking for their next step in life don’t always have a built-in support system behind them. Many shelter animals are in need of a long-term support system as well. By bringing the two groups together, they can work toward each other’s mutual benefit.

 “The kids that we work with haven’t found that support system, so it’s important to have it there for the animals and for the youth.”

– Penny Ellison, Executive Director of Hand2Paw

Hand2Paw works with young adults who may be lacking role models in their lives and could benefit from learning new life and work skills to prepare for the future. So where do shelter animals come in? “The kids often say they ‘identify with the animals,’ especially the ones that are living in some type of shelter situation. It gives them hope, because they can see the animals come in, go through the system and have a positive outcome,” Penny says.

Lovely, a young adult who entered the Hand2Paw internship program, started out working at Wendy’s. She wanted to work with animals and could finally cultivate her passion  through Hand2Paw. Not only could she build a human support system with her mentors and peers, but Lovely also saw the human-animal bond at work. She supported shelter staff by walking and playing with the animals, practicing responsibility and empathy in the process. As Lovely enriched their lives, they enriched hers, guiding her toward a new career as a vet tech.  

Not every intern at this Philly-based organization continues on to work with animals, but the time they spend with the program can be a stepping stone toward the future, learning people skills, and on-the-job training. “Sometimes animals are just the vehicle,” Penny says. 

What’s more, Penny says success isn’t always a straight line, and this is what makes partnerships with animal shelters so beneficial for opportunity youth. At Human Animal Support Services, we see community partnerships as the future of animal sheltering. By bringing together human services and animal services organizations, like Hand2Paw and Philadelphia animal shelters, people and pets can better support each other.

Through the long-term support system that Hand2Paw offers, Philadelphia youth are equipped with skills and relationships that accompany them through life transitions. Many shelter animals are in need of that long-term support system as well to help them find hope and happiness.

Spending time with shelter animals allows youth to act as that support system and gives them a sense of self-worth too. No matter what the circumstances of their upbringing or the difficulties they have faced, when these youth walk into an animal shelter, they know they are needed. There is always something to be done in an animal shelter, from walking dogs to spending time with pets who could use some human interaction. While these young people gain new skills and practice empathy, the shelter animals experience the joy of individualized attention. 

Kansas City, MO, organizations are joining in to help “opportunity youth” in their communities through internship programs. Over 30,000 Kansas City youth between 16 and 24 years old are not currently in school or working. By partnering with Hire KC, Entrepreneurship KC and KC Common Good, KC Pet Project is part of the efforts to give young people work and life skills. As a Human Animal Support Services pilot shelter, KC Pet Project also gets to see the human-animal bond give young people more opportunities to practice empathy and connect with their communities. 

Through partnerships like those facilitated by Hand2Paw and now KC Pet Project, we see the human-animal bond teaching young adults empathy, responsibility, and the importance of positive self-image. Shelter animals are the vehicle for these lessons, but the animals themselves also gain so much more.

“That’s what HASS is all about,” Penny says. “It’s not necessarily that you come into this program, then you’re out and everything’s wonderful. It’s a long-term support system.”

Both groups experience the individualized attention and hope that may have been missing in their lives, and it all comes down to having people, and animals, in their corner.


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