Aiden* knows what it feels like to be lonely, neglected and homeless. He has spent six of his 21 years living on the streets of North Philadelphia, braving the elements in search of a better life.
Marley — a one-year-old American Eskimo puppy — was surrendered to animal control after his owner decided to move. Today, he is waiting for a new family to adopt him.
Over the past few weeks, Aiden and Marley have come to realize that they have more in common than meets the eye.
Both are participants in Hand2Paw, an organization that brings together homeless youth and homeless animals in a relationship that fosters care, responsibility and mutual support.
The group was founded in December 2009 by College junior Rachel Cohen. Cohen initially developed the idea as part of an outreach project for the Franklin Community residential program in Harnwell College House. When the residential program ended, though, she didn’t want the project to end with it.
“From the start, the youth and the animals were like magnets,” Cohen said. “It’s been a mutually beneficial partnership that gives the youth job skills and therapeutic experience and gives the animals training and social skills.”
Today, Hand2Paw works with teens from Covenant House — a center for homeless youth in the Germantown area of Philadelphia. Every other week, about six Covenant residents make the trip to the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society — located just a few miles from Penn — and help care for shelter dogs and cats.
Covenant House Program Coordinator Rob Zindell said that Cohen’s work with Hand2Paw has been “a phenomenal thing to see.”
“She’s there, she’s passionate about what she does, she’s mature beyond her years,” Zindell said. “A lot of our kids are shocked to learn that she’s around the same age as they are and I don’t blame them.”
According to Zindell, Covenant House serves more than 5,000 homeless youth in Philadelphia each year. To date, Cohen said Hand2Paw has worked directly with around 60 of these youth and has reached more than 1,000 animals.
For homeless youths like Aiden, Hand2Paw serves as a reprieve from an otherwise-difficult and demanding life. Aiden, who is currently involved in an 18-month transitional living program at Covenant House, said he sees close parallels between the animals’ lives and his own.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m in a cage and treated wrong, just like them,” he said. “They’re basically in the same position as me.”
Cohen said it is “this mix of the animal care and the human element” that has made her determined to see the program continue to expand.
For her work, she recently received a $500 grant from DoSomething.org, which allowed her to employ a visiting dog trainer to help with Hand2Paw. Cohen is currently nominated for a Students in Service Award, a national program for college students who are creating positive social change.
“I can definitely see [Hand2Paw] going national,” Cohen said. “When you’re truly passionate about something and are surrounded by people who are as well, it really feels like an effortless project.”
*A pseudonym was used due to the sensitive nature of the story.