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Frank Gray

Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
These cats’ Huntington hangout recently received $35,000 worth of improvements from two volunteers.

They lifted paws to help

Like most animal shelters, the Helping Paws Pet Haven in rural Huntington has never had a lot of money or manpower.

The shelter, started 10 years ago, long operated with only four volunteers who staffed the place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, caring for the cats and scrubbing the painted concrete floors daily. To raise money, the volunteers would occasionally stand on street corners with signs, asking for money for cat food.

Meanwhile, the shelter says it has managed to adopt out 2,500 cats since it started.

Their work hasn’t always been appreciated. A couple of years ago, someone hung four dead cats, which had been shot through the necks with arrows, on the fence outside the shelter.

About a year and a half ago, though, the shelter saw a dramatic increase in volunteers. Two more volunteers joined in – a 50 percent increase – giving Helping Paws six volunteers.

The shelter remained poor, though.

Then, around last Thanksgiving, the two newest volunteers, who don’t want their identities known, asked if it would be OK for them to have vinyl flooring installed in one of the shelter’s rooms. Denise Schlomer, one of the founders, was thrilled and said yes.

When the installer arrived to measure for the job, though, the two newest volunteers told him to just measure all the rooms for vinyl, the whole place.

Schlomer couldn’t believe it.

Not long after that, the new volunteers looked at the shelter’s rustic cabinets, the sort of things you’d find in a garage, and ordered new cabinets and counters from an outfit in Texas and had those installed. Later they threw in a new sink.

Pet shelters use a lot of bedding, so the volunteers next decided a commercial washer and dryer would come in handy, so they bought a set. But the shelter didn’t have sufficient power to run them, so the nameless volunteers had the shelter’s electric service upgraded.

Meanwhile, once the washer was installed, they decided a new, larger septic tank would be handy so they had that done.

But commercial washers use a lot of hot water, so they then bought a new water heater, and as an afterthought, almost, they decided to install a handicapped-accessible bathroom in the shelter. Before that, the only bathroom available was in the house next to the shelter, where the unpaid director lives.

Then, as long as things were looking up, the two volunteers decided a new suspended ceiling would be nice, so they had one installed and threw in some new doors while they were at it.

And just so the cats wouldn’t feel left out, they bought a bunch of fancy cat trees

The improvement, which took place over the course of more than a couple of months, left Schlomer stunned.

“Every time I walk in, I think, this isn’t happening,” Schlomer said. “I never asked for this to happen. It’s just a miracle.”

Schlomer did repay the volunteers, in a way. Over Christmas, she says, she gave each of them a hug.

But the shelter, like all shelters, is still poor, and from time to time you’ll see volunteers out on street corners with signs reading something like, “Will Work for Cat Food.”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.