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February Star Sanctuary

To better acquaint our members and the greater community with our grantees, we are highlighting some of the nonprofit organizations that have received WGC grants. This quarter, we talked to Phyllis Smith, Executive Director and co-founder of February Star Sanctuary. Phyllis has been with February Star Sanctuary since its founding in 2013.

What is the mission of the organization, and what personally moves you about that mission?

February Star Sanctuary was created in 2015, and has since blossomed into a key player in animal rescue in Frederick County, Maryland. The mission of February Star Sanctuary is to rescue, rehabilitate, and provide a permanent refuge for cats and horses in need. Our Caring for Cats of the Homeless program will provide a separate, indoor location for cats that are in our temporary care. This program will give vulnerable women and families the opportunity to have their cat(s) temporarily fostered by February Star Sanctuary for up to one year, at no cost to the participant. We want to help the woman of our community the best way we can. We want women to have an option to place their cat with us so they can make other life changes.

What are the most significant challenges that the organization is facing right now? What are the most significant challenges faced by the clients/populations that you serve?

The current health and financial crisis has added extra strain on our community and in turn, on our organization. Many families are facing the need to relinquish their pets due to health or financial concerns, leading to a high demand for animal rescue organizations. This high demand combined with fewer donations and fundraising opportunities has had an impact on our ability to serve the community’s expanding needs. Nevertheless, we have created a new program to assist in emergency food relief for pets in order to keep families together. Additionally, our Caring for Cats of the Homeless program will provide the opportunity for some individuals and families to have their cats temporarily housed at February Star Sanctuary while they get the assistance they need.

What is the nature of the Giving Circle grant that you received for 2020, and what impact will it have on women and their dependents in Frederick?

67% of U.S. households have a pet. Yet, a majority of homeless and women’s shelters throughout the country do not accommodate pets, leaving vulnerable individuals with the difficult decision of leaving their beloved animal companion or receiving the assistance and shelter they need. In the case of domestic abuse victims, 50% delay leaving their abusive partner out of concern for their pet, 71% report abuse of their pet, and 52% are forced to leave their pet with their abuser. February Star Sanctuary understands the bond between owners and their pets; because of this, we are partnering with local human service agencies to provide temporary shelter for the pet cats of Frederick County, Maryland’s vulnerable population – specifically, homeless individuals and victims of domestic violence.

The long-term outcomes we hope to achieve with the creation and continuance of a safe haven for the cats of vulnerable women in Frederick County, Maryland are:

The amelioration of the permanent separation of companion animals and their caretakers, despite housing changes or financial hardships.

Assisting program participants in long-term self-acceptance, emotional stability, and empowerment.

An extensive study published by BMC Psychiatry (The Power of Support from Companion Animals) reviewed hundreds of published articles and research regarding the profound emotional effects pets have on their owners. In this research, they found that losing a pet (including being forced to permanently relinquish ownership of a pet) adds considerably to acute trauma and increases the risk of long-term impacts when an individual is already experiencing a traumatic life event. With no shelters in Frederick County currently offering animal care services, February Star Sanctuary has the opportunity to close the gap on the number of individuals who are forced to relinquish ownership of their pets, leave their pets with an abuser, or choose to not leave a violent household.

By temporarily housing program participants’ cats, February Star Sanctuary has the ability to aid in program participants’ - and their pets - emotional recovery. Research in The Power of Support from Companion Animals shows that the unconditional love and affection of pets fosters self-acceptance, positivity, and self-efficacy, along with being a source of support that individuals can trust and rely on in comparison to other members of their social network. Participants in the study described positive effects their pets had on their mental health that were missing in their human relationships, including simple, reciprocal love, honoring personal boundaries, and pets not holding past behaviors against them. Additionally, for individuals who live alone, pets provide a source of connectedness, reassurance, and normalcy. In the study, one woman said, “When you're feeling so unlovable, when your whole life has been ripped [apart], and in those times when you're just so lonely ... [my cat] would just be sitting right there with me...that one paw on you, it is the best feeling in the world.” Several other women suggested their pet saved their life by helping them maintain the will to live.

Qualitative research also shows that the purpose and sense of meaning pets give their owners assists them in avoiding worry and ruminations about the past and concerns about the future while giving them a reason to live and contributing to an overall sense of control and empowerment. Overall, pets can increase emotional stability through the regulation of feelings, management of stress, and helping people to cope with difficult life events. It is the mission of this program to champion the welfare of companion animals and their vulnerable guardians through temporary care, leading to increased emotional recovery and independence for women facing a housing crisis or fleeing domestic violence and, in turn, decreased animal abandonment and abuse.

Do you have any specific “stories” that you can share with us that illustrate what you are doing in the community?

We have had a variety of “success stories” over the years, but one that is near and dear to my heart is what inspired the Caring for Cats of the Homeless program. We were contacted by a woman who believed she needed to give up her cat for its own health and safety but was devastated to do so, as the cat was part of her family. We chose to offer to temporarily foster her cat until she was able to land on her feet again. After a month and a half, she and her beloved animal companion were reunited. It was gratifying being able to assist in keeping her family together.

Is there anything further that members of the Giving Circle can do to help, in terms of volunteering, in-kind donations, etc?

As an animal sanctuary, we are always happy to have new volunteers to help with our programs and general maintenance on the farm. There is always plenty to do, so individuals with all interests are welcome.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We are so thankful for the assistance from The Women’s Giving Circle. The Caring for Cats of the Homeless Program is filling a need for women and their pets in Frederick County, and we are grateful to have The Women’s Giving Circle as a partner.


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