In late June, the graduation ceremony for the St. Francis House Dog Care Academy was held: a picnic in the park where the graduates sat socially distanced, recounted their experiences, and shared their hopes. While she knew that there was no predicting the future, especially for a new program like Dog Care Academy, this wasn’t quite the graduation that program coordinator and instructor Leah Widdicombe had envisioned when the Academy welcomed its class in January.
“When we set out, I told the participants that we weren’t sure exactly what was going to happen with the class,” Leah says. “Everyone knew they were testing a new program, and we established upfront that what was needed was a mindset of flexibility. As it turned out, having this mindset was an incredibly good thing.”
Dog Care Academy provides skill-based training and creates career paths for those interested in joining the growing pet care industry. It is a six-month paid internship program that combines hands-on experience and classroom training. As originally conceived, the interns would spend 15 hours each week at The Urban Hound at St. Francis House (located in the same building as The Union, St. Francis House’s affordable housing building) learning the ins and outs of dog daycare. In addition, interns would spend an hour a day in a face-to-face seminar setting.
As the instructor, Leah – with a bachelor’s degree in animal behavior, a master’s in animal and public policy, and years of work in the field – had perfect credentials for the task. During the face to face sessions, she focused on three categories:
- Personal professional growth (finance, budgeting, computer proficiency)
- Employment readiness to become part of a workplace (teamwork, communications skills)
- Animal-related information (human-animal interaction, “Animal Law 101”, service animals vs. emotional support animals, etc.)
Each week would also feature a lecture from The Urban Hound on some aspect of the dog care business.
After a one-week trial period, during which potential interns discerned whether the program was a good fit for them, Dog Care Academy kicked off on January 27th with four participants. And then, after 7-weeks of hands-on work as part of their 25-week program… COVID-19 hit.
“When we were first told we’d be working from home, I thought that it would be a temporary thing – a minor disruption,” Leah says. “Soon enough, reality set in and I realized that we were going to have to change things up. Not only would we not be able to meet face-to-face, but the hands-on work wouldn’t be able to happen.”
While keeping in touch with the interns via check-ins to see how they were doing, Leah went through the curriculum and devised a training plan that would help the interns develop their skills even if they wouldn’t be able to actually work with animals. This was a challenge. Since the interns had limited access to computers and the Internet, she knew that the curriculum would need to be paper-based. But she didn’t want to create too much of a school homework atmosphere. She created packets of reading materials and exercises to keep the interns learning and engaged.
She also began coming in every other week, on the days the interns came into St. Francis House to pick up their stipends, to meet with each program participant individually. “It was very grounding for me to learn how the group members were doing under such difficult circumstances. Their strength and determination amazed me. Meeting with them also showed me how much connection mattered. It helped pull people out of their quarantine reality and helped make them feel that they were still part of something.”
Beginning in June, Dog Care Academy transitioned to job hunting. The group worked on their resumes, honed their job skills, and connected with St. Francis House employment specialists. Three people completed the course, optimistic about their job prospects, and eager to embark on careers doing something they love.
For as long as they like, Dog Care Academy grads will remain valued members of the St. Francis House family. “As we sat there at our graduation picnic, two things struck me,” Leah says. “How flexible and resilient these folks are. And how much they trust us. There’s a true belief that we care about their futures. St. Francis House provides hope for people’s lives, and Dog Care Academy is a good example of that hope.”
Graduates of Dog Care Academy have access to the numerous alumni resources offered through the Workforce Development Department at St. Francis House. While the future of our in-person programming is uncertain at this time, we’ll be sure to keep our community updated.