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Best Friends staffer goes above and beyond to help struggling Louisiana animal shelter get back on track

We’re so lucky at Best Friends to attract the best and brightest in animal welfare. When a shelter in New Orleans was in need recently, Liz Finch, director of national community cats programs, immediately offered Best Friends’ help. Jefferson Parish Animal Shelter is the recipient of a three-year community cat program, and Liz has been building strong relationships with the shelter staff and the parish government since late 2017.

Once Liz suggested that a Best Friends employee could step in and help fill the gap for Jefferson Parish, it took about three seconds for our own Patty Hegwood to raise her hand and step up to help. With hundreds of people working at Best Friends, I can’t tell every story about our people going above and beyond, but just know that Patty is one of many who will do almost anything to help an animal and, even better, an entire organization. In this story, the organization is Jefferson Parish Animal Services, which operates two shelters. Here’s what happened, and why I’m honored to work alongside my colleagues here.

Best Friends and Jefferson Parish

It started with a partnership. Best Friends’ community cat program in Jefferson Parish began in April of 2018, with two full-time Best Friends staff working alongside the staff in the shelter. Jefferson Parish Animal Services is one of the largest animal organizations in Louisiana, taking in approximately 7,600 dogs and cats at its two facilities in 2018. The parish has committed to increasing their save rate to reach no-kill, and that directly impacts our goal to bring the entire country to no-kill by 2025.

So, when Jefferson Parish Animal Services had a vacancy in the director position, we offered to help.

Shelter in need of a director

The shelter needed a leader to get things on track again. Staff morale was low, records were a mess. There was also a need to engage the community to adopt pets from the shelters; staff at the parish’s two facilities were struggling with the number of animals in their care. It would take months to find and hire a qualified new director, and with things in such turmoil, it wasn’t the most attractive job.

That’s when we at Best Friends decided to offer a solution to bridge the gap at the New Orleans–adjacent shelters, giving the parish some breathing room. We offered a staff person to fill the role of director for a three-month period. The good news is that those involved with Jefferson Parish Animal Services (including the parish president, Michael Yenni, the chief administrative assistant, Dr. Diane Roussel, and the senior parish attorney, Debra Miller Yenni) were open to the idea, and said yes.

Patty Hegwood steps in

Best Friends has many people embedded at shelters in various roles to work alongside staff on lifesaving programs. While there are lots of people here who could have filled the role of interim director, Patty Hegwood was a natural and obvious standout.

Patty is from New Orleans, and before joining Best Friends, she owned a veterinary practice there for more than 10 years. Patty’s New Orleans vet practice also had a nonprofit arm that served local humane organizations, including Jefferson Parish. She co-founded the Big Easy Feral Cat Project, which was the first feral cat spay/neuter program for the city of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. Since 2006, Patty has held various positions at Best Friends, including clinic manager and animal care director, overseeing the care of about 1,600 animals. And she had maintained relationships in and around Jefferson Parish.

The combination of her leadership skills and her intimate knowledge of the community made Patty the ideal candidate to fill the interim director role. Plus, she was willing and able to head back to her hometown to help in a crisis. So, she packed her bags and went to New Orleans to report for duty at the struggling shelter.

Getting things under control

With just three months on the job, Patty and Michelle Logan, her direct manager for this project at Best Friends, wasted no time getting to know the staff and digging into the challenges they faced. It might not sound like a big issue, but the shelter software was a core problem that was making everything else a headache. More than 2,000 animals had never been properly marked as leaving the shelter, for example. With bad data, you can’t run a report or have a trustworthy picture of what’s happening with all the animals in the shelter on a daily basis.

In addition, the shelter needed more and better client service, and a refreshed approach to help more pets get adopted. These are common challenges that lots of shelters face, and while Patty was there to oversee and help with day-to-day operations, along with the guidance of Michelle, they called in more colleagues to help. That’s what is so cool about Best Friends and why my colleagues are so amazing. The bench is deep, and they’re excited to help others.

We paired Lora Allrich, one of our shelter software experts, with Jefferson Parish staff to help clean up their data. We had Kenny Lamberti, director of grassroots advocacy, work with the staff on improving customer service and instituting an open and inclusive adoption process. There were many, many other things, from big-picture policies to daily operations, to assess and either leave alone if it was working or tweak if it wasn’t. The goal was not only to keep things afloat at the organization’s two shelters, but to roll out these changes for lasting success. When a permanent director is found, that person will walk into a much better situation.

One tangible example of this work was when the staff pulled off a successful adoption event; more than 80 pets got adopted in a single day in June. That’s worth celebrating.

Every time I think about our staff helping out a shelter, I think about the dogs and cats who are alive and in new homes because of it.

Next steps for Jefferson Parish

Though Patty’s work at the shelter will come to a close in mid-August, Best Friends isn’t going anywhere as a resource for Jefferson Parish. The community cat program will keep saving lives. Best Friends regional director Lee Ann Shenefiel will be just a phone call away whenever the shelter needs help, and she’s committed to helping the shelter continue to increase the number of animals saved there.

The situation in Jefferson Parish is now under control and ready for the next phase, all thanks to parish decision-makers who care about the animals as much as we do.

Photo courtesy of Ashley Tzioumis

Marc Peralta, Senior director of national no-kill advancement, Best Friends Animal Society Marc Peralta
Senior director of national no-kill advancement
Best Friends Animal Society