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VOL. 7 | NO. 37 | Saturday, September 6, 2014

Purrfect Combination

Teens learn job skills, save furry friends at East Nashville's Crossroads Pets

TIM GHIANNI | The Ledger

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Nancy Keen Palmer is worried about Lily and Holly.

The worry doesn’t show, though. Only a bright smile lights her face as Lily, a 6-year-old miniature dachshund-Yorkie mix, and her half-sister, Holly, a 7-year-old Yorkie, take turns climbing into Palmer’s lap and lavishing her with licks.

Palmer, 25, has planted herself squarely on the floor of the dog play room of the Crossroads Pets – Shop & Adopt facility, which looks out at a funeral home and shares its parking lot with a hot-chicken wing outfit at Monroe and Rosa Parks in the heart of Germantown.

“Holly and Lily’s owner died,” Palmer says. “They are sisters, though, and we’re going to keep them together. It does make it harder to find them a home, though.”

The animals, unworried by their situation, climb into a stranger’s lap as well, whining and distributing licks.

Interns Stefanie Toups (left), Ernest Pickett and Cursti Carter price dog food while doing inventory at Crossroads Pets – Shop & Adopt.

(The Ledger/Michelle Morrow)

This is not an uncommon scene at Crossroads Pets – Shop & Adopt, which is fronted by the pet retail store, an intimate retail space from which all sorts of specialty dog and cat foods, chewing antlers and bones and paraphernalia can be purchased.

But there’s much more inside this old home, a former tea-room, in Germantown. For example, it houses the pet adoption rooms – one for dogs, one for cats, plus the play room – in the back part of the store.

There also is a grooming room and what Palmer terms “Nashville’s sexiest dog wash” – for $10 you can get Sparky sparkling. There is an outdoor play space as well. That’s not to mention the maze of office and storage space.

This whole house is the site of a business with a mission, though.

At its heart are two segments of Nashville: Young people who are at a crossroads in life, a place where they can decide whether to go forward on the straight-and-narrow or take the easier, but perhaps deadlier, route of so many urban young people.

The other segment served by this business and social enterprise are the animals, like Holly and Lily, but also like Meadow, the 10-year-old chunk of a tabby who reigns over the office.

Not a lot of people are going to adopt an older cat, and in this case it’s working out for Meadow, who is the Cat Executive Officer of the operation and spends her time and energy “helping” the office staff carry out their mission of building bridges for social change.

It is hoped that soon the shop-and-adopt portion of the building’s mission will pay the bills for the Crossroads Campus non-profit and its work with young people.

“We have a passionate board,” says Palmer, whose animal-centric sociology degree was the ideal preparation for this job when Crossroads Pets opened up more than a year ago.

“I was sociology major at the University of Colorado. I was blessed to have a great professor who introduced me to animals and society.”

In other words, what she learned focused on the give-and-take – what animals give people in terms of love and morale and purpose, and vice versa.

“In all of the programs we are connecting the needs of the youth in need with the needs of animals in need, so they can grow and learn and interact,” Palmer, development coordinator, says of the multi-level Crossroads bridge-building efforts.

The reason for the store’s being is apparent in the young people who are stocking shelves, tending the cash register, doing laundry, helping with the dogs and cats and interacting with customers … learning marketable job skills while helping with the operation of the non-profit.

Eventually the goal of Crossoads is to expand its campus, to buy or build affordable housing for the young people in the program both while they are interning in this building and after they’ve gone out in search of professional lives.

There are currently seven of these interns, referred by The Martha O’Bryan Center, Oasis Center, KIPP Academy and other organizations boosting the promise of young people in Nashville.

One of the biggest partners in the business conducted in this converted house is Monroe Harding Inc., the children’s home.

Not only do some of the interns come from there, but it also is the site of Crossroads’ weekly Caring Connections program, allowing the young people at the home to interact with pets and with human beings who are devoted to these animals.

“With Caring Connections, we call it humane education and dog-education programming,” Palmer says. “We go on Saturdays to visit with the residents at Monroe Harding. They get to play with the dogs and help train them, but also learn different lessons about dogs. We are really trying to give them an enjoyable Saturday event.

“We teach about companionship, sort of Pet 101 classes. We have seen a lot of profound changes come through that concept,” she says, flashing a fetching smile.

“And our goal is to help overcome pet over-population and cruelty,” she says, adding that there are “Pittie Days,” which focus on giving the young people exposure to pit bulls and dog-fighting from a different perspective than that which they perhaps learned on the streets.

Since the Crossroads store is open seven days a week and resembles any mom-and-pop pet shop, customers may not realize what is being attempted and generally accomplished in the comfortable rooms and hallways behind the store that opened in March 2013.

One purpose of the store is that it allows for disciplined interaction of animals and young people who otherwise would not be emotionally exposed to these pets, all of which are being prepared for adoption.

“But the store also is to gain revenue for the (Crossroads Campus) non-profit,” Palmer says. Grants, gifts and fund-raisers help Crossroads flourish, but the long-term goal is for it to be self-sustaining with proceeds from the store, grooming and dog washes paying for the bridge-building efforts.

In addition to educating young people about animals as things to be loved rather than neglected, the store and its backrooms also help give youth “readiness job training.”

For example, the interns all work with the groomers who rotate through, with the only day that a groomer isn’t present being Wednesday.

Nancy Keen Palmer

(The Ledger/Michelle Morrow)

“Typically they have grooming jobs outside of Crossroads and they just want to be a part of what we are doing,” Palmer says of the groomers.

Depending on the size of a dog, groomings begin at $49 and go up to the $100 range. It takes about three hours per dog.

While the actual staff is limited, it also is stretched. So the more that young people can be trained in the skills of the business, the more responsibilities they take on in the store.

“We want to give them broad-based skills that they can take with them,” says Palmer. “We want to give them tangible life skills.”

So while it seems like a pet store and an adoption facility, this also is a “business school” of sorts for the interns sent here by the partner agencies.

“We love animals and we are in the animal business, but we are really in the social service business,” explains Palmer.

By using the interns as store staff to help keep the pet store and adoption business thriving, it gets to the most important focus of Crossroads.

“Our focus is really preparing them for life in the workplace,” she says. “They learn to show up on time, call if you’re going to be late, tuck your shirt in and don’t chew gum.”

Those are just some of the outward signs of what the young people are getting. The most important thing they are getting is “the confidence they can build that they can take with them when they go. That work readiness.”

While young people staff the cash registers regularly, it’s not necessarily a natural skill. Taking money and making change confidently, correctly – and politely, with customers – takes practice.

“A lot of the skills we take for granted – addition and subtraction and making change – are things these interns can actually be intimidated by, and they don‘t want to tell you they don’t know how to do that,” Palmer says.

“So often, we’ll start there.”

So during times when the store is not so busy, Palmer becomes a job-trainer.

“I’m sort of playing something with the interns called ‘role play register.’

“We’ll role play and have one intern be the shopper and the other will work behind the counter. And we’ll give you a scenario.”

Those scenarios present the interns with certain problems.

“We’ll have one of them say they have a 4-month-old French bulldog who is really tearing up the couch, and the interns then learn what kind of products we have to solve those problems, as well where things are.”

Human-interaction and pet-interaction skills are learned this way. But also “the interns gain confidence by using the register itself.”

The young people also learn skills by helping with the actual care and feeding of the animals that are brought from Metro Animal Care and Control for adoption.

“We are helping to reduce euthanasia, one adoption at a time,” says Palmer, adding that if the animals that are in the adoption rooms in this converted home don’t fill the needs of people, “we try to promote the work of MACC and send an adopter their way.”

At the maximum, only a half-dozen or so cats and the same number of dogs are kept here in the Monroe Street business.

“As soon as one is adopted, we go out to (animal control) and get another one.”

The adoption manager (Delores Carter) travels to that facility off Harding Place – near the women’s prison – with eyes and heart set on a certain class of animals: The ones who are most endangered.

“We start with the animals that have been there the longest,” Palmer says.

“Then we test their temperament and see if they are going to work here in our environment. We try to get the ones that are on their way to euthanasia.”

Fact is there are too many dogs and cats in Nashville that need homes. And Animal Control bulges with animals in distress.

“It’s the numbers game that Metro is forced to play,” Palmer says. “They take in thousands and thousands and thousands of animals each year. And when they are over-capacity, they make the hard decision by who’s been there the longest.”

The animals chosen by Carter are brought back to the home office on Monroe Street, where they are prepared for adoption.

“The average length of stay for dogs is about five days,” Palmer says. “Dogs move fast, but cats move slower. But that is true for (all) pet adoptions.

The small number of animals actually on the store premises is by intent, she says.

Cursti Carter holds a puppy named Emily.

(The Ledger/Michelle Morrow)

“We found that our adoption success comes from those small numbers. The adopters who come in here are not overwhelmed by the number of animals to choose from” as they would be at a large pound or shelter.

“Kittens and puppies go faster than 5-year-old dogs or 6-year-old cats. The older it is, the harder it is to adopt it, but we have them here from two months to multiple years of age.”

She also notes that in addition to larger breed pups, the agency really focuses on small to medium dogs – in large part because that’s what urban dwellers want or what apartment leases will allow. But larger dogs aren’t excluded.

And Crossroads, while it does listen to the wishes of consumers, does not go breed shopping.

“These days, everybody’s just a beautiful blend,” Palmer says, adding that Crossroads also requires pet adopters to show any lease or rental agreement so that an animal isn’t taken home and then forced by paperwork to be surrendered.

Palmer gets back down on the floor with Holly and Lily, who still are distributing kisses. “I’m in this for the long haul,” she says, noting that her work, helping animals in order to help endangered youth, is a life’s calling.

“It’s passion with a purpose. I can see a future here. I can grow with that.”

For neither the young people nor the animals can she be the caretaker or therapist. But working with both, she is putting together pieces of the professional puzzle for the young people while at the same time finding homes for dogs and cats.

“We are building the bridge between humans and animals,” she says, smiling while Holly … or is it Lily? … pushes on her chest.

(Post script from the writer: The loving sister dogs mentioned in this story – Holly and Lily – have been adopted and will live their lives out happily in the same home.)

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