Student Spotlight: Rachel Leah Cohen

Rachel Leah Cohen, founder of Hand2Paw  Photo credit: Mark Stehle

HAND2PAW: College junior Rachel Leah Cohen established an organization called Hand2Paw in December 2009, bringing together homeless teens and homeless animals with the goal of providing love, support and education to both the people and the pets.

FRED MEET FIDO: Through the program, young men and women from Covenant House—a center for homeless youth in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia—volunteer and work as interns at the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) Wellness Clinic in the Grays Ferry neighborhood of Philadelphia, socializing, training and caring for shelter cats and dogs.

PUPPY THERAPY: Cohen, who wants to become a veterinarian, says the idea for Hand2Paw grew from working as a volunteer at PAWS. She saw how much the animals craved human companionship, and she knew that interacting with animals has proven to be helpful to humans, too. “I’d heard of programs like Puppies Behind Bars [which trains prison inmates to raise puppies to become service dogs for the disabled and law enforcement] and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to empower at-risk teens in a similar way, working with animals?’”

SIT AND STAY: Hand2Paw initially sought to simply get teens from Covenant House to socialize with the shelter animals, Cohen explains. The volunteers would come to the shelter twice a month, and for two hours they would snuggle with cats, play with dogs and clean cages. “All the kids involved love animals,” Cohen says, and they wanted to see the animals go to good homes. Cohen says she realized that if the dogs were trained, they would have a better chance of finding a home. So, she sought modest funding from DoSomething.org to hire a dog trainer, who is now instructing the young people how to teach the dogs to obey simple commands.

LOVE WITH FUR: “The especially motivated volunteers have become interns at PAWS,” Cohen says. “And all the kids have been great about passing along information on how to properly interact with animals in their community.”

THE CAT'S PAJAMAS: Rob Zindell, a program director at Covenant House, says the Hand2Paw program is one of the most popular activities at the youth shelter. To date, about 75 young people have volunteered with Hand2Paw.

UNLEASHED POTENTIAL: Ultimately, Cohen says, she would like to see Hand2Paw grow into a career-path program for at-risk youth. In addition to providing lessons in dog training, she would like to also offer training in pet grooming and one day even start a veterinary technician training program. Learn more about the PAWS shelter at www.phillypaws.org and about Covenant House at www.covenanthousepa.org.

Originally published on January 20, 2011