When entering the doors of Hand in Paw, you might think the place has gone to the dogs and in a way it has. It’s not because of the appearance of the building. The new construction opened in 2019. It’s because you’re greeted by Annie and Oakley, the personal pets of Executive Director Margaret Stinnett, and Financial and HR Director Amanda Puskar.
The impact of the dogs is immediate as they instantly lighten the mood of the room. That is the general premise behind Hand in Paw (HIP), an organization dedicated to providing animal-assisted therapeutic visits to hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and rehabilitation facilities. They are just one of the many nonprofit organizations Borland Benefield helps through auditing.
Executive Director Margaret Stinnett and Hand in Paw Founder, Beth Franklin.
The History of HIP
HIP began in 1996 when Beth Franklin, then Executive Director for the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, learned of the power of animal-assisted therapy and how it changed the lives of people in need.
At the time, animal-assisted therapy was not as well known as today, but when Beth discovered that it was helping cancer patients going through chemotherapy, she knew she had found her mission.
Beth trained with the Delta Society (now Pet Partners) to learn how to use this new therapy to its full potential. Soon after, Beth left her job at the Humane Society, sold her house, and founded HIP with a core group of like-minded investors. With the help of UAB staff, HIP created an infection control protocol to ensure the safety of patients and then went to work.
“HIP’s work started with Oncology at UAB,” Margaret recalls. “Therapy teams then expanded to Children’s of Alabama. As the idea gained traction they began to serve more hospitals, nursing homes and special needs children in schools. Then HIP began visiting at-risk youth and expanded services to include offices and colleges. It didn’t take much convincing to show people how beneficial an animal visit could be for people’s wellbeing.” In fact, a number of studies since the mid-1990s have shown that animal therapy can reduce stress hormones, lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure.
Today, HIP manages over eighty therapy teams who made more than 767 therapy visits in 2020.
Mastering the Art of Being a Good Boy
To become a therapy team, a volunteer and their pet need to be trained and graded by HIP evaluators. Potential therapy pets have to be calm, cool, and collected in unfamiliar and sometimes chaotic environments. For example, a dog visiting a hospital must be able to ignore a mixture of confusing sights, sounds, and smells, and remain calm if a code blue occurs.
HIP’s state-of-the-art facility near Avondale even features a simulated hospital room so evaluators can gauge how a therapy pet will react in a real hospital setting.
There’s also all of the basic obedience that needs to be mastered. It’s not enough for a therapy dog to be calm; they have to be in lock-step with their owners in order to make therapy visits achieve the desired result of bringing joy to the patient.
Dollars for Dogs
HIP doesn’t charge any of the organizations it serves, so it takes a lot of fundraising and events to keep the good going.
Picasso Pets is one of HIP’s most popular fundraisers. Going strong for 20 years now, a donor makes a pledge, reviews the portfolios of local artists, then works with the artist of their choice to create a custom painting of their animal companion, complete with pictures or pawprints from their pet.
Another popular event is Mutt Strut, where people pay an entry fee, then enjoy a 5k run (or walk) with their dogs.
For October’s Barktoberfest, HIP partners with Cahaba Brewing. Participants compete in costume and stein hoist contests, because what goes better with holding up heavy mugs of beer than a bunch of cute dogs?
These events, coupled with corporate and private sponsors, are the lifeline that allows HIP to continue its fantastic work.
A Helping Hand for a Helping Paw
Borland Benefield has been auditing for HIP since 2005. The firm is so involved with the nonprofit that a number of Borland Benefield employees have even served on HIP’s board.
“Nonprofits are unique in how fluid they are. Board members change, volunteers move on and everything moves so fast that sometimes the history gets forgotten,” says Amanda. “Audits, believe it or not, can show the entire history of an organization. The audit work Borland Benefield has done has helped sketch a roadmap of the entire history of the organization.”
Unfortunately, a Birmingham accounting firm isn’t the best place for dogs, but everyone at Borland Benefield is happy to be a part of helping Hand in Paw continue its mission of bringing a bit of happiness to patients and people in the area.
Learn more about becoming part of a therapy team or making a donation by visiting Hand in Paw’s website.