By Lisa Kava
Nellie Sierra, 76, lives on West 68th Street with her dog Jango, an eleven-year-old, 60-pound pitbull-German shepherd mix. A divorced mom of two grown children, retired from her job in retail, Sierra has mobility issues that frequently keep her home in her apartment. Jango provides love and companionship.
“Jango is my family. He keeps me company,” Sierra told West Side Rag in a phone interview. But arthritis, along with spinal stenosis that affects her back and hips, make dog walking problematic. “He pulls. He is strong and it has become harder for me to walk him,” said Sierra. And hiring a walker was too costly for Sierra’s budget.
Sierra’s dilemma was solved when a friend told her about PAWS NY, a nonprofit whose volunteers help seniors and disabled or financially challenged people care for their pets. Those who qualify can get complimentary services such as dog walking, dog sitting, cat litter box changing and general pet care.
One of Jango’s regular walkers now is PAWS NY volunteer (and Upper West Sider) Beth Schwartz, an attorney, who was a dog owner for many years. When Schwartz’s own dog passed away, work and travel demands kept her from jumping immediately into dog ownership again. Volunteering to help with someone else’s pets seemed ideal.
“I love dogs and Jango is such a sweetie,” Schwartz told the Rag. “He is super friendly and very special.” She enjoys the time outdoors with Jango and the work break. ”Walking Jango and getting away from my laptop clears my head,” she said. Sierra is grateful for the help – and shows it. “Nellie expresses her gratitude to me each time I pick Jango up for his walk,” Schwartz said. “She gives me little gifts at holidays.”
Rachel Herman, executive director of PAWS NY, founded the nonprofit in 2008, when she was a graduate student at New York University. PAWS, which stands for “Pets Are Wonderful Support,” was inspired by a homeless couple and their dog that Herman saw each day on her way to class.
“It broke my heart that someone would give up a warm bed at night to stay with their dog, because at the time shelters did not allow pets,” Herman told West Side Rag. “I began to think about older adults and how as we age taking care of pets might become more difficult for some.” While working in development at the ASPCA, Herman pursued her PAWS idea, eventually raising the funding to make it a fulltime job in 2012.
PAWS volunteers sometimes take on additional responsibilities, such as providing foster care or assisting with veterinary visits. Victoria Leon, the group’s program manager, acts as intermediary between volunteers and clients; she speaks with PAWS clients about their needs, coordinates volunteer shifts, schedules vet visits, and arranges foster care. “My role allows me to witness the significance of the human-animal bond,” Leon told the Rag. “I also get to connect with our incredible volunteers who truly make an impact with their kindness and dedication.”
Another PAWS client, Rosa Olan, 79, is a retired security guard who lives on West 102nd Street and Amsterdam with her son Julio Perez, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, and their five-year-old Labrador retriever mix Clover. When Olan was recently hospitalized for three nights, Leon contacted one of Clover’s volunteers, Upper West Sider Jennifer Berman, to ask if Clover could stay with Berman temporarily. “I was happy to host Clover,” Berman said. “Rosa is a loving and caring pet mom, and Clover is good natured and loves everyone. I fell in love with him immediately when I started walking him in December 2021.”
Neither Olan nor Perez is able to walk Clover, due to Olan’s back and leg problems and Perez’s disability. A social worker connected them with PAWS. “Jennifer and the other PAWS volunteers are angels on earth,” said Perez. “Because of them, we can keep Clover.”
When Clover has a vet visit, twelve blocks from home, Berman walks him there. “I don’t have the leg strength to do it,” Olan said. “It means the world that I can count on Jennifer.”
Berman and Olan often sit and chat after walks. “I tell Rosa about our adventures – if we played with other dogs, if I threw a stick for him to catch, or if he rolled around in the snow. Rosa makes me feel like part of the family.”
“Helping someone keep their beloved pet in their home is extremely satisfying,” said Beth Schwartz, Jango’s walker.
Added Berman: “The work is so rewarding because of the relationships I develop with clients and dogs.”
Victoria Leon says PAWS NY always needs volunteers. If you love dogs or cats, have extra time to spare, and think you might be interested, click here.
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