Rescue U Helps Shelters in Need

College students forego vacations work on large-scale rehabilitation projects.


Animal shelters face many challenges. Insufficient funding. Overcrowding. Less-than-optimal facilities that put stress on animals and humans alike.

Enter Rescue U. The Petfinder Foundation program recruits college students and other volunteers to work on large-scale shelter rehabilitation projects during school breaks. Its recent end-of-summer project significantly improved the lives of homeless animals at the Humane Society of West Michigan in Grand Rapids.

Program organizers start with a to-do list provided by the shelters, then scale projects according to resources, both financial and human. Thanks to funding from The Animal Rescue Site, Rescue U had the money to fulfill most of HSWM’s requests. Students from Grand Valley State University, Central Michigan University, Michigan State University, Kettering University, and Grand Rapids Community College, as well as nonstudent volunteers, provided the necessary manpower to get the work done, showing up for one day or for several throughout the week-long project.

Much-needed improvements

The main problem in the shelter’s dog kennel area was noise. The barking bounced around and amplified, giving the pups little peace and quiet and resulting in many employees and volunteers regularly wearing earplugs, not only in the kennel but also in nearby offices.

“The dog kennel area has very high ceilings and concrete walls,” says Rescue U program manager Doug Woolsey, who helmed the project with Rescue U national director Bryna Donnelly. “We made sound baffling, 62 sheets, and placed them on the walls, 10 feet high. You can go in there now and talk. It’s still loud, but not like before.”

The program also upgraded the areas where dogs play and receive training. HSWM has three dogs runs and two pens, all of which had pea gravel on the ground before volunteers got to work.

“In the summer, the gravel gets really hot. It would burn the dog’s feet,” explains Woolsey. “We took out close to five tons of pea gravel and installed artificial turf. It’s much better for the dogs. It’s extremely durable, and it can be hosed down and bleached.”

Rescue U also built an agility course for the shelter, which gives employees and volunteers room to improve the adoptability of dogs waiting for a forever home. Woolsey designed the course, and a Groupon Grassroots campaign funded the purchase of materials.

“We used recycled tires that we washed, sanitized, and spray-painted. We made steps up and down with a platform in the middle. A lot of times, dogs are terrified of steps, or open stairs can make a dog skittish. This will help with step training and leash training,” Woolsey says.

Volunteers also provided organizational and cosmetic improvements throughout HSWM. And, not to worry, the cat areas also received attention. A simple fix such as the installation of a curtain between rows of kennels will cut down on infection rates, and shelves in the cat room give kitties waiting for adoption a place to perch.

Other Rescue U projects

The program has another large-scale rehabilitation project scheduled for the 2013 winter break. It will help the Carolina Waterfowl Rescue in Indian Trail, North Carolina, which was struck by a tornado last spring. As with all rehabilitation projects, Rescue U will recruit from area schools and invite previous volunteers to use their experience and expertise to help another shelter. Many schools support students to make participation possible, including providing vehicles and funds, and Rescue U helps with travel expenses. After all, the students do give up their vacation time to help animals in need.

“The trips are fun. It’s a lot of work, but at the end of the day everyone’s laughing and having a good time,” Woolsey says.

Rescue U also offers year-round volunteering opportunities through its five school chapters at University of Oklahoma, Michigan State University, Central Michigan University, Grand Valley State University, and Delaware Valley College. Students volunteer at designated Home Shelters near their schools, learning from employees and other volunteers.

Dan Weesner, a senior at Delaware Valley College, has been a part of his school’s Rescue U chapter since freshman year and has taken part in six rehabilitation projects.

“I do it for so many different reasons,” says Weesner, who now serves as the chapter’s secretary. “It started off as just fun, but it really drilled into me how important it is to help out these animals, who are in such desperate need.”

The small-animal sciences major, who also has volunteered with a program that provides horseback-riding opportunities to special needs children — and who has raised two seeing-eye dogs — says his dream job involves working for a service-dog organization. He says his time with Rescue U will help him achieve that goal.

“Rescue U has provided so much in terms of leadership skills. I train new people on a trip who have never lifted up hammer, much less a power drill. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have interviewed well for my summer job,” says Weesner, who spends his summers as a camp counselor at Busch Gardens. “These are skills I will have for life.”

The program’s Home Shelter network will undergo a major expansion this month. Thanks to a grant from the Petfinder Foundation and The Animal Rescue Site, it will have funding to bring 60 more shelters near schools into the Rescue U family by the end of 2013.

Woolsey says he looks forward to the expansion and the effect it will have on communities across the country.

“Rescue U can really wake a community up to what’s going on in its animal shelters and change the lives of animals in the most drastic, wonderful way.”

To apply for Home Shelter designation or to learn more about volunteering with the Petfinder Foundation program, visit the Rescue U website. To see the Rescue U volunteers in action at Humane Society of West Michigan, watch this video and others on the program’s YouTube channel.

Do you know of a rescue hero — dog, human, or group — we should profile on Dogster? Write us at

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