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Metro East Animal Welfare Organization Adds Services For People

Gateway Pet Guardians’ new community support manager will help the organization strengthen ties to existing community resources in the Metro East for people facing hardship.
Rachel Lippmann / St. Louis Public Radio
Gateway Pet Guardians’ new community support manager will help the organization strengthen ties to existing community resources in the Metro East for people facing hardship.

EAST ST. LOUIS — A social worker will help Gateway Pet Guardians strengthen its connections with other community-based services in the city.

The organization’s new community support manager is intended to help keep pets and their families together, while aiding those who are facing hardship, said Jill Henke, director of Gateway Pet Guardians community programming.

“Often the animal welfare organization is the first spoke in the wheel to be alerted that a family is facing homelessness or facing a crisis,” she said. “If people are having trouble caring for their pet, they’re probably having trouble in other areas of their life.”

Henke said an animal’s welfare is directly tied to the welfare of the people who own it. She said the norm for most animal welfare organizations has been to focus solely on animals.

“If we truly want to help pets, we have to help the people that love them,” she said. “Those things really belong in the same conversation.”

Gateway’s approach with its social worker is to simultaneously address what a family’s pet needs in the short term, while working to provide long-term solutions for people facing hardship, Henke said.

They aim to achieve this with partnerships and referrals to organizations in the community that already provide human services. Henke said their connections with other local organizations are mostly informal right now.

“We’re not trying to replicate what already exists,” she said. “We see the social worker building partnerships so that we can more holistically provide guidance and help for our clients.”

Henke also sees this as a way for Gateway to continue to be an example for how animal welfare organizations can better serve lower-income, majority Black and brown communities. She said the industry’s general practices have geared pet ownership to whiter and more affluent neighborhoods.

“Everyone deserves to have the love and companionship of a pet,” Henke said. “We’re euthanizing pets in this country for no other reason than space, while we’re simultaneously telling a subgroup of people that, ‘You’re not good enough’ or ‘You don’t have enough money' to be a pet owner.”

Gateway has offered different forms of community programming in East St. Louis since 2012, when it first started providing a free spay and neuter program.

In the years since, the organization has expanded its outreach efforts to include free vaccination clinics and providing resources in cold weather. In 2020, Gateway relocated to East St. Louis.

“They try to work with people in the neighborhood that may not be able to really take care of the animal like they should be,” said East St. Louis resident Ruth Childs. “They get to know people and know the people’s animals, and it really does help.”

Childs, who’s lived in the city for 64 years, said she was initially hesitant when Gateway started offering services in her community. She cited her experience with other organizations that were quick to euthanize rescued animals.

She said Gateway is different.

“They don’t judge people,” she said. “They truly try to work with people in the neighborhood.”

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.