How did Happy Paws Happy Hearts (HPHH) come about?

I started Happy Paws Happy Hearts eight years ago for a combination of reasons. The first was seeing social isolation first-hand and knowing just how challenging it is to rebuild your inner self confidence.  The second was seeing how many rescue animals are in shelters, and how stuck for time the teams at shelters are. This makes it difficult to give the animals the extra care and attention that they need.

So the whole idea – and it was just an idea back then – was: what if we could bring those two areas together? What if we could take socially isolated people, who are struggling to build up the confidence to reconnect with society, and get them to engage with those animals in a purposeful way each week? That could lead to positive change for the people over time, while the animals would obviously benefit from the extra care and attention.

So you’re really solving two problems in one go?

That’s the idea. It’s just this win-win. It’s also a reframe. I really struggle with some of the rhetoric around disability and mental health being this “billion dollar burden” on the country when really, if we think about it in a different way, we can see it as an opportunity. With HPHH, we’ve got people wanting to take that first step out of social isolation really helping animals that need care.

What was your career background before you started HPHH?

A bit of a mixed bag. I started my career in the construction sector and I did corporate communications and community engagement both here and in the Middle East. When I returned to Australia, I decided it was time to work towards a career that was more aligned with my values and I began working with people who are deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

Is that where you got to see social isolation first-hand?

I also have lived experience. As a young woman I had a really challenging relationship with a veteran. He had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He was quite explosive, with night terrors and violent episodes, which I was naturally exposed to. In the course of attempting to get him help, I retreated from my social networks and my own confidence took a real blow. When you’re supporting someone through a mental health journey, you can sometimes end up going down that tunnel with them.  To be perfectly honest, I’m fortunate to be alive.

Rebuilding myself was a whole other journey. Fortunately, I decided that I wanted to tap back into something that had been a big part of my life and to go to a space where I could feel useful and more like myself. I’d grown up in a family of wildlife carers; we always had animals coming-and-going from our home. So I took myself to the old RSPCA in Brisbane, just to spend time with puppies and dogs. Bit by bit, it reinvigorated me. It made me see the good in humans again; I was so inspired by the team and their passion. And, even though I was still in my corporate career, I clearly remember a moment, when I was sitting in one of the RSPCA’s concrete pens, saying: “I’m going to come back and do something with this organisation, with this space.”

What kind of people do you typically help?

We kept things open when we started the organisation because we knew social isolation was a broad area and we wanted to be very participant-led. Seventy per cent of our participants are young people, who tend to have the combination of a disability and mental health issues, like social anxiety or trauma in their background.

When we started the organisation, we thought we’d just get people together in a room, talking and spending time with animals. But the young people, in particular, wanted to come every single week. I realised we needed to devise dedicated programs and take them through the course week-by-week. The way I see it, we’re like the coolest university you could ever go to because we’re surrounded by animals and we’re doing all this learning together.

In addition to young people, we also have first responders, veterans and older Australians, although that became challenging during COVID. Everywhere I turn there’s another area we could focus on. Just this week, I was approached about doing work with women and children leaving domestic violence situations.

What does the program actually involve?

We ask our participants to commit to either two or three hours a week. We match them with a group and then hold group training in a training room within the shelter environment. They have a trainer dedicated to their group and learn the basics around animal training, care and socialisation. We then progressively build them up into different areas around the shelter.

They work with animals in every single session, and that usually involves 5-6 different animals per session. People always think it’s going to be all about dogs and cats, but there all sorts from guinea pigs to ducklings, goats, pigs or any safe rescue animals to work with. Our participants aren’t just sitting there, handling animals that need handling time. They’re doing quality training of animals and other jobs that help the shelter, like packing up care packs for foster parents. There’s an endless list of things that need to happen for rescue organisations to exist and they’ve always relied on community help. All we’ve done is turned that community into a more inclusive one.

How many people do you help – each year and to date?

We are currently working with 430 participants who come to our locations every week. Our big, hairy, audacious goal is to raise that to 1500 participants every week so that we have reached 10,000 people by 2032.

What are the improvements and outcomes experienced by participants in your program?

We mainly see growth in their self-confidence and in their social interaction and skills.  They also learn practical skills and procedures and they end up mastering the care of these animals. From there, we see young people who may be completely disengaged from education start to look at it through a different lens and with a purpose behind returning to education – if that’s what they want and need.

The other part which is very special to me personally is the kind patient care our participants give to the animals.  I think because so many of our participants’ have had traumatic backgrounds themselves, they really understand that what rescue animals need in these moments.

Why do you think working with animals is so effective?

Anyone who’s had a pet knows that they can immediately make you smile and laugh. They bring a lot of instant joy, which is a great starting point. The thing about rescue animals, in particular, is the parallel journey that they’re going on. The animals need to rebuild their confidence in people, they need more skills and they need more patient time and attention – which is exactly what our participants need.

Another part of the magic is that the animals won’t “fake it” for the participants! Sometimes it’s not enough for us positive humans to say, “You’ve got this. We can really see improvements and we’ve really noticed a difference over these past six months.” In our space, the animals reinforce that every week. In comes a dog that doesn’t know how to lie down and the participant trains it how to lie down. In comes a very nervous cat that then starts getting more comfortable with social interactions. These things are happening, real time, before the young persons eyes. So the sense of achievement and feedback is right there.

So you mean animals give authentic feedback?

Exactly. Real time, authentic feedback. And the work our participants are doing is so needed. Right now, at our biggest campus in Brisbane, they’ve got the highest number of surrenders and the lowest number of adoptions they’ve ever had. The number of animals that need extra work has grown, but it’s incredibly challenging to get volunteers at the moment. So the work our participants are doing is critical to how the whole operation functions. They couldn’t do right by the animals without our help.

If you think about it, most participants who come to us have been the recipients of care, whether that’s through family or other organisations. When they come to HPHH, they’re there to give care and we find an amazing shift happens. They start thinking, “I have purpose, I am giving.” The quickest way that someone can feel good about themselves – and research will back me up on this – is to give. It immediately makes us feel better.

What’s driving the high rate of surrenders?

The high cost of living and rental prices. There’s an assumption that people who surrender their animals must not care for them. That’s not at all true. People come in bawling their eyes out. They often can’t compete for rentals when they have pets. Or they have to choose between feeding their kids or getting urgent veterinary care for their animal. If they can’t afford surgery or vet care, then often the more humane thing to do is to surrender the animal. It just puts a lot of pressure on rescue organisations.

How has demand for your services changed over the years?

Obviously, we didn’t exist eight years ago so finding people to come into our programs in the early stages took a lot of effort. We had to do a lot of mass media and marketing. Now it’s the other way around; we’ve got a waitlist and we’re desperately trying to keep up with demand and train more trainers. Everyone knows that we’re in a mental health crisis and the latest stats that we have on social isolation are old. When we started the organisation, 1.1 million Australians were socially isolated. Now, with COVID and people retreating, I can’t even imagine what the figures are today.

What will the Future Generation Global funds mean for HPHH?

It will support our scale-up journey, which we’ve already begun. The investment from FGG, which actually exceeded our expectation in this first year, has given us the confidence to replicate our model in more locations. We’ve got calls coming in from shelters in Townsville, across New South Wales and all the way over in Perth. There’s a lot of scope for us to reach more a lot more socially isolated people and support a lot more animals simultaneously.

How difficult is it as a not-for-profit to measure impact, especially in something like mental ill-health prevention?

I think with the right guidance, it’s not difficult. But I feel very strongly that it needs to be done with care. We’ve had some failures in our impact measurement and evaluation that I talk openly about because we’ve learned from them and we now know the right approach to take for our participant cohort.

We started trying to measure impact with some of the university-led instruments, like health-related quality of life and PTSD tools. But, as I said before, we’re a space where people come to get away from being medicalised and cared for. We’re trying to give them a space where they have really purposeful work that changes their attitude about themselves. And when we were using the wrong impact measurement instruments, I noticed that our participants were actually retreating from the process.

So now we used a tool called the Outcomes Star, which is a facilitated conversation between participants and someone they trust, like their trainer. It’s a visual tool that allows them to see how they are progressing.

I feel so passionately that you have to find the right measurement tools for the people you’re working with. We’re gathering information from them, and we should feed that back to them in real time so that they can see their progress – and the information doesn’t just go into some report in a vault. It’s not enough to just go out and say, “We’re creating change.” We have to measure to ensure that we’re actually creating those intended change – but we have to do it in the right way!

What do you find most rewarding and most challenging about your role?

For me, the reward always comes in the progress of the participants. Walking around shelters and hearing laughter and joy coming from our training rooms just fills me up to go on for another day.

It’s challenging growing an organisation. We’ve gone from just me and a merry band of volunteers, to over 30 staff in multi-locations, so that has its own challenges. It’s also difficult to find the right kind of support that understands we’re not going to change people’s lives in 6-12 weeks. For some people, it will take six years. But we’ll stay there for the long haul to make sure we’re there for the complicated change journey.

As you know, Future Generation Global recently shifted its social investment focus to mental ill health prevention and mental wellbeing. We’ve put together a portfolio of 14 social impact partners, and HPHH is one of those. Do you see any benefit to being part of a broader impact collective?

Oh, absolutely. That was one of the things that really excited us about the journey with FGG. It gives me a burst of energy to know that there are other people out there doing incredible work in this space – and that they’ve been working at it for a long time and hold a similar mindset. Knowing that we can share ideas and talk through challenges is very exciting. It’s also so important for us to have a collective voice when it comes to mental ill health prevention. We need to collectively advocate for change if we’re going to move the dial!

For more information, visit Happy Paws Happy Hearts’ website.


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