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Hattie Larlham Doggie Day Care

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Working with animals brings a special sense of fulfillment to people with disabilities.

Anyone with a pet knows the enrichment they bring to daily life. Pets offer unconditional love and understanding to the people who care for them - something that is particularly true when the person has developmental disabilities, said Hattie Larlham Foundation Relations Officer Kathy Janini.

"Research shows that regular contact with pets can have positive effects on both the physical and emotional health of individuals with disabilities, as well as improve their quality of life," Janini said. "People who have regular contact with animals typically are more focused and aware of their social environments and tend to exhibit more nurturing behaviors."

Now, Hattie Larlham is helping people with disabilities reap these rewards and make a living all at the same time. With the help of a $20,000 grant from Akron Community Foundation, the organization opened the Hattie Larlham Doggie Day Care & Boarding facility. Located in Twinsburg, the doggie day care employs 40 "Canine Companions" to interact and care for the animals dropped off by their owners. 

"I’ve got a whole list of reasons why I like working at Doggie Day Care, but my number one is being around animals," said an employee named Judd. "My job is never boring, and I love it when the dogs get happy just by seeing my face."

On a more logistical level, Janini said the day care allows people with disabilities the chance to earn an income while boosting their independence. "The Hattie Larlham Doggie Day Care & Boarding site provides individuals with the opportunity to learn job skills and earn a fair wage while working with animals," she said. "Each employee works closely with a job coach and develops the sense of teamwork and responsibility that comes with providing care as they learn to feed, groom, exercise and clean up after the canine guests."

According to Janini, the majority of adults with developmental disabilities rely on Social Security for income. However, with a maximum monthly payment of $698 in 2012, Social Security cannot fully support these adults, and many of them fall under the federal poverty level. 

"As a result, the financial burden often falls to the families or guardians who are frequently struggling financially, as well," Janini said. "Unfortunately, for individuals with developmental disabilities, finding a job to supplement their income can be difficult. Typically, they are limited to jobs that pay low wages based on simple assembly or piece work."

At Hattie Larlham, however, programs go beyond the typical task-oriented jobs. At both Hattie’s Café and Gifts and the Doggie Day Care & Boarding site, employees are given jobs specifically tailored to their abilities and interests. At the doggie day care, employees are responsible for all aspects of the pets’ care, including spending quality time with them in a cage-free environment.

"When owners drop off their dogs during the day or for overnight boarding, they leave knowing their pets are in good hands," Janini said. "At the same time, they are supporting the development of jobs for people with disabilities."

The new facility in Twinsburg was modeled after Hattie’s Doggie Day Care & Boarding site in Green, which has seen tremendous success. A 2009 survey of customers showed 97 percent were "very satisfied" with the quality of care and services provided. 

"We are not a kennel at all; I call it a pet hotel," said director Rick Parson. "These folks work as hard as or harder than the typical employee because their heart is in it. It’s such a perfect bond ... These (dogs) help us as much as we help them."

As an added bonus, Hattie Larlham is now teaming up with the Humane Society of Greater Akron, which opened a new animal shelter at the same site in Twinsburg. Janini said the two organizations collaborate on retail, grooming services, customer assistance and fundraising activities.

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