Cat-loving L.A. volunteer donates over 5,000 hours
It was back in the summer of 2013, and the Bakers — Cheryl and her husband, Paul — were on their way from Los Angeles to visit their daughter in Colorado when they stopped overnight in Kanab, Utah, just a few miles from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. And while on a planned slot canyon tour the next day, they spotted the Best Friends sign along Highway 89.
“I said something to my husband about that being the place I had read about,” says Cheryl. “Our guide chimed in that it was a cool place that gave free tours and we should check it out. When we got back from our adventure I called, and we managed to get on the last tour of the day.”
Nearly 10 years later, Cheryl, with help from Paul, has accrued more than 5,600 volunteer hours with Best Friends in Los Angeles, not far from their home in La Crescenta. She’s volunteered in adoptions, worked as a receptionist, staffed numerous events, and fostered more than a hundred animals — not to mention she’s become a well-spoken, knowledgeable ambassador for Best Friends’ lifesaving work.
“I didn’t actually start with Best Friends until I retired in 2017,” she says. “At first, I was on the cat team, but I also spent time in the front of the office helping with adoptions, answering phones, and other duties. I liked the staff, dealing with the public, and just the whole way that Best Friends works.”
A flexible, dedicated volunteer
Cheryl’s mentor those first couple of years was Kylie Melville, then an adoption specialist but these days Best Friends senior manager of lifesaving programs in L.A. Flexibility and dedication, she says, are the most important qualities of a great volunteer. “Cheryl had them both. Not a lot of people come in wanting to work with both animals and people, but she was up for it. And you know, she’s really good at it.”
Though she’s been ready to take on just about any task, Cheryl is the first to admit that before she started volunteering, dogs just weren’t her thing. “I’m really a cat person,” she says. But once she started, a single mobile adoption event changed everything.
With the rest of the staff otherwise engaged, Kylie and Cheryl were in charge of several dogs and cats. Kylie turned to Cheryl and said, “Here, hold this little dog.” Cheryl says, “I was suddenly in this pop-up enclosure with four or five small dogs, who all wanted to jump on me and be held. After a couple of hours, I was in love with all of them!”
Fostering at home
In addition to Cheryl’s work on-site and at Best Friends events, she and Paul have fostered more than a hundred cats at their home.
“My favorite was Tabitha,” Cheryl says. “She was a gray tabby who came in during the holidays without any visible injury, but her hind end just didn’t work. We had to lift her into the litter box. We took her home, and at the house we have hardwood floors. She would scoot along and waddle along from side to side. But she kept getting stronger.”
So strong that Tabitha somehow managed to shimmy up their Christmas tree. “We were thrilled to see her do that,” says Cheryl. “We decided to take the tree down, but we were so happy that she kept gaining strength and was eventually adopted.”
Then there was Mondo (short for Mondrian), a cat in poor health who had recently lost his vision. Suspecting a brain tumor, veterinarians prepared Cheryl by telling her that he might not have long to live. “It was very interesting to learn how to communicate with him,” Cheryl says. "We would snap our fingers to lead him to where the food was. We had him three-plus months, and he did fine with no deterioration. He eventually went to another foster home, but he lived for quite a while longer.”
Connecting with animal lovers
Cheryl has also spent many hours engaging with the pet-loving public by answering phone calls, helping people find animals to adopt, and tabling at adoption events. A common theme in those discussions in recent years has been encouraging people to foster animals.
"At one point people were bringing in lots of kittens, and it was difficult for us to take them,” she recalls. “It was so rewarding to convince people to foster the kittens themselves. We were able to give them supplies and guidance. We sent them home with formula and bottles. People would take them home and keep them until they were old enough to be adopted.”
In addition to their love of fostering, Cheryl and Paul also volunteer at a local food bank. Retired from long careers in the aerospace industry, the couple has made it a habit of donating as much time as possible to serve others.
After more than six years, Cheryl is still volunteering with Best Friends, and she especially enjoys helping with creative, adoption-oriented events. “Recently, we took some kittens to a brew pub, and we were able to get them all adopted. We’re planning to go back to the same pub, this time with some puppies.”
A multitalented volunteer who has helped save so many lives, Cheryl loves what she does. But of all the heartwarming moments she’s been involved with, those that involve seeing families with little kids take home a pet are particularly special for her.
“You put kittens in the arms of little 6- or 7-year-olds, and they might be a little scared at first,” she says. “But then you see their faces light up with joy.”
Are you inspired to volunteer, too?
Signing up to volunteer at your local shelter or rescue only takes minutes, but the love and care you provide pets will last lifetimes.