Sarah Chiles proves that it’s never too late to find your passion. She started by volunteering for a local organization and received a phone call to join what she describes as her “dream team”. The Fredericksburg SPCA has 200-300 active foster homes in their program at any given time. Listen in to learn more about Sarah and how she found her passion and how they are able to find/keep active foster homes in their program.
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Sarah Chiles is a shelter programs director at Fredericksburg SPCA. And she oversees the staff that runs the foster, intake, transfer, volunteer, social media and outreach programs. With a constantly changing population of animals, Sarah enables the SPCA to scale while keeping animals, foster and volunteer families, shelter partners, adopters and staff supported.
Hey, Sarah, Thanks for coming on today. Thank you, Chris. So you get to start us off and tell us about you and what’s your back story? I am an average, ordinary, everyday person who loves to work with animals. And then I kept going and persevered and that led me here. But it all started, most recently, about 10 years ago, when my first pack of dogs started passing away on me and I had three that left, um, for the Rainbow Bridge within six months of one another. And it was a pretty traumatic experience for me. I, uh, never allowed myself to watch television shows like Animal Planet’s and those sorts of things, because I felt my gosh, how could I possibly give back? I have no idea what I could do. I feel helpless. And I would feel guilty any time I saw, you know, someone out there doing all the things, to save the animals. So I was feeling sorry for myself one evening and turned on the television show and Pitbulls and Parolees was on, and it was in their New Orleans location shortly after they moved. And they were, you know, shoring up the building because there is a hurricane coming. I have a huge affinity for, um, pitbull-type dogs and for New Orleans itself. So I was like, you were kidding me, that all of this is happening, within the same period of time at the same moment. And I cried a really good cry. And then I said, Okay, we’re done, we’re moving on, and the next day I signed up with people rescue.
Wow, that’s all it took, huh? Just seeing that show. Well, it was building up to that. A long time of, what else can I do? What can I do? Feeling sorry for myself. And then soon as I got past that, I realized, it’s not about me, it’s about the animals. So I got to work and I started volunteering, became the foster coordinator for a local pitbull-type dog rescue. Started working in the shelters here, in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in Fredericksburg and fell in love. One of my biggest fears in life was entering an animal shelter. I figured I’d be overwhelmed, that there’s no way that I could possibly handle the emotional toll of seeing all of those animals in need. And I realized that that was exactly where I felt most comfortable. Interesting.
So was that the first time you had ever been in an animal shelter then? I had been in an animal shelter or a couple of them, throughout my life. But they had been very quick visits to go in, get an animal and get back out. Um, I had always adopted animals, you know, ever since, you know, our pets during childhood and avoided animal shelters at all costs. They’re scary. They’re noisy. They stink. People that are mean. Um, like all those things that I thought I knew were all wrong. Um, I got to know the individuals who work at our local county shelter. They became some of my best friends. Uh, when I had free time, I was always hanging out at the shelter. What can I do? What dogs can I walk? What needs to be cleaned up? You know, can I introduce you, can I help you find a pet, you know, to the members of the public who came in. Um, and I realized that that was my passion in life. And I had finally found it as a 40-year-old woman. It takes a while sometimes. It does! That part of my life has been the most empowering, of everything, I’ve gone through in life. And it has brought me to where I am now, because it’s not an easy task, to continue to put your heart on the line. To continue to move in the direction of trying to help the animal population. But it didn’t take too long for me to figure out that the source of the issue is not the animals themselves. It’s the humans surrounding the animals. And I got to make some really close bonds, with a lot of people, who taught me that I need to give as much as myself as I can, to help those people in need. But I’ll have to constantly put myself first because if I don’t, I don’t have enough to give to everyone else. Yeah, that’s really good advice too, because it is often a very, very difficult job. A difficult position to have to be in and seeing, as I always say, the bad side of humanity and what we do.
So you’re right. You do need to take care of yourself and obviously take care of your staff so that you can keep helping animals. Yep. You went in there and you kind of started volunteering. And then you decided, Hey, this is where I need to be. This is kind of my calling now. I was actually looking for something else. I had been doing that for about three years. Um, I was actually looking to get a networking group together of rescue partners, shelter directors, animal control. Um, anybody who had anything to do with animal welfare, I wanted to start a networking group here in our community. Because we have a huge number of rescues and people who volunteer with rescues and people who work at shelters. So I thought, well hey, let’s get us all around the table and see what we can start doing together. Um, and as I was building that networking group, um, Caitlyn Daily reached out to me and said, Hey, you’re the foster coordinator for Bully Paws, right? And I said, Yeah, I am and I love it. And she said, Well, I’m looking for a foster coordinator and I’ll pay you for it, and I went, you’ll pay me to do this? Are you kidding? You had to contain your excitement and say, Well, I might consider that. Of course, I’m going, Um, didn’t even though that was an option.
So I interviewed with her and she had brought on, um, another one of my role models, D. Law, who had recently left the Stafford County Animal Shelter, to come work at the Fredericksburg SPCA. So it’s like, that is the absolute Dream Team, and I was invited to join them, and the last three and 1/2 years have been just, absolutely tremendous. That’s so cool. And what I really love about your story is that you know, it took you until you were 40, right, to really figure out.. right before my 40th birthday to figure it out. Yeah, yeah, and I’m very similar. I know there’s a lot of other people out there that are the same, where it’s like, you always knew you loved animals and you cared for animals. But you never really realized that this can, this can fuel your soul. Absolutely. Getting out and in the morning is the most exciting thing, knowing that I get to come here and do the thing that I am on this Earth for, for decades of my life. I think I just wandered aimlessly, trying to figure out what my purpose was. What is your background in? I mean, what did you do prior to this? I had gone to college and gotten a corporate job for about 10 years past college, then became a stay at home mom for 10 years. Nice. During that 10 year period of time that I was being a stay at home mom, I started volunteering with some animal organizations in the area. You know, when I got started with Bully Paws and then I came here. That’s quite the journey.
So now tell us, tell us a little bit more now, what you’ve been doing and kind of what your role is now. I started out of the foster coordinator here, part-time, just 10 hours a week. We had a very small foster program, with about 15 to 20 animals at any given time. Maybe 60-75 animals that would get serviced or helped through our foster program, throughout the year. And I think we were doing about 1200 adoptions. But we were inundated with cats, to the extent where we had cats all up and down our hallways. In cages. We have community rooms for our cats that house about 68 cats each. Each one of those was filled up. We have smaller community rooms that have four or five cats in them. All of those were filled up. So right before I started, we had about 150 to 200 cats in our care, and none of them were in foster care. Okay, so, uh, they’ve been here for years. Wow. And you said you only had about 15 to 20 foster families. Yes. So we hit the ground running and said, Our community wants to help us make a difference. They just don’t know how. So we started on social media and really started putting the pictures and the faces and the stories, in front of our community saying, We need your help. We need fosters.
I started in December, so we started gearing up for the inevitable kitten season, which, fortunately for us, didn’t start till April. So we’d already gotten through a good bulk of the adult cats. Moving them into foster care, getting to know them, giving them time to decompress outside of a small, you know, three by three cage. Uh, those animals started getting adopted very quickly. We started a special with a buy one cat, get a second cat free. Because we know that cats really enjoy being around other cats. And that was a huge benefit to getting those animals adopted. We had a couple of Waived the Adoption events, during that period of time. But we started opening up in April, May to kittens, and because we were able to get all those adults adopted, it wasn’t quite as overwhelming, as it would have been otherwise. Ah, we rescued, within the first year, about 500 kittens and all of them went through our foster program, majority of them coming in between 4 to 6 weeks of age. All of them got adopted by the end of kitten season, which is typically September, October here in Virginia. And it just went from there.
We decided we’re doing great with kittens and with cats. So let’s move into dogs. And we started doing a transfer program, where we were taking animals from other organizations throughout the state and neighboring states, D.C. um, North Carolina and West Virginia. And we started, you know, transferring in animals that were, you know, in jeopardy being euthanized. And then not only were we able to increase adoptions here in our community, by being able to open our doors and allow intakes from our general public and from our county shelters, but we were able to bring in, I think, an additional 700 animals that yea,r from outside organizations to help them, you know, get to a status of no-kill as well.. Is this, are you able to do this by growing your foster program? Absolutely. We were starting to put about 30 to 40% of our animal population in foster care. Being able to have a much more humane surrounding for them. Animals don’t want to be in cages. They don’t want to be in shelters. We don’t want to see them in shelters. We want to see them in a home. Thriving, enjoying life.
Most of our foster supplies are donated to us by our community. So our foster program runs at virtually no cost. We’re able to provide them the medical through, uh, here in the Fredericksburg SPCA. Um, we have vets that work with us, that help provide the medical, for as being neutered at a low cost, of course. And so right now we see that on average, 75% of the animals who come through our doors, have spent at least a couple of nights and foster care. Right now, 60% of our animal population, we have about 230 animals currently in our care and about between 60 and 75% are in foster currently, on any given day. Which means that right here in our building, which can house over 100 animals, has typically got up to 60 animals in the building, because the rest are all in foster care.
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So how many foster families do you have now? Hundreds, hundreds, hundreds. Um, actively working at any given time, we have about 150 to 200. In the course of a year, we’ll bring in probably 400 new foster families, and then carry over probably half of those, into the next year. People come and go, uh, many fosters adopt their animals and then decide that you know, their house is full. Sure, foster failures, right? But we love him anyway. Absolutely. That’s how we get many of our more disadvantaged animals adopted. So absolutely, I’ve failed on three of my four animals, as well. We live in a very mobile society in that there’s a lot of government staff, here in Fredericksburg. So people don’t tend to stay longer than a year, you hear a lot of military families moving in and out. So, you know, even flow of foster families. I think on average, we probably have 200-300 foster families, ready for us to send animals in foster care, at any time. That’s amazing.
So now, how did you go about getting that many? Social media was the biggest thing. We asked our community to step up, told them what the issue was and how we needed their help. And they answered. It took other foster families talking to their friends, their acquaintances, the people who adopted those animals. It was us getting in front of groups of people, within the community and talking about our story and asking for help. Um, we weren’t expecting the groundswell of support that we got. And we were overwhelmed and humbled by the number of people who came to us and said, Hey, I saw this post or I talked to a friend of mine or I was driving on the street and I saw your sign and so I thought I’d stop. I mean, ways people know right? Well, all you have to do is be transparent and ask for help. Yeah, that’s super fascinating because I know one of the common things that I hear from shelters and rescues, is that they’re always looking for more fosters. And I always challenge them, What are you doing to get more fosters? Well, you know, we posted that we need fosters, but, you know.
Maybe, what are your best practices or tips for people, as to how do you really engage and get people to want to be a foster? It’s not a passive action. You have to be actively putting that opportunity to foster animals, in front of every single person and every single conversation that you have. It’s not just that we put a post up on Facebook, so there we go. We’ve asked. It’s done, Move on. Every single post refers to fostering. Every single conversation we have in the organization, we talk about fostering. Every person who comes through the doors looking to adopt an animal, we offer them the opportunity to foster. We get in front of community groups and we talked about all of our programs and tell them that the number one need, other than donations, of course, is to join us in fostering. We’ve been able to provide our community with a need that they have been wanting for a long time. They wanted to get involved in animal welfare. They wanted to help. We just had to keep talking to them about it, until enough people talked to enough other people, who talked to enough other people, that they joined the cause. But it wasn’t just an ask and be done. It was a started effort to keep that conversation in front of everyone, consistently for about two years. Wow.
So, it was just top of mind and like you said, in every conversation, everywhere they turn. And then it’s just a matter of getting them, getting them through your funnel right, getting them to be a part of your program and be available when you need them. Absolutely. And we made sure that our foster program was the easiest thing that they could do here. You could come in today, give me a copy of your driver’s license, sit down and talk to me about what fostering looks like. I’ll send you home with an animal. I’ll give you links to do some training when you get home, I’ll give you a phone number that you call if you have any questions, and then we go from there. So we want to make sure it’s as easy as possible to be a foster for our organization. Yeah, and I think that’s really smart, right? Because oftentimes I think we put our own hurdles into place and our own friction to the process, to make it difficult. And, you know, we’re just asking people that care for animals, and I’m guessing you must get a lot of people that just love animals, and that’s where they’re doing it.
Absolutely. One of the things that we didn’t realize, that was gonna be the biggest or one of the biggest impacts in fostering, is the number of people who come to us and say, I want to help these animals, but I can’t keep them. So they come in with a litter of kittens, Mom, and you know, five or six kittens and go, here, take them. So then we turn the question around and say, Would you help us care for them for the next 4 to 6 weeks until they get to the point where we can put them up for adoption? By and large, those people say yes. We give them the supplies that they need. We give them a schedule for vaccinations, for deworming and their spay/neuter. And then they bring the animals back. We get him adopted. Sometimes they stay with us as fosters. Sometimes it’s just that one litter and they move on. But again, you put that question in front of nearly every single person you come in contact with, it will make a huge difference. Yeah, I think that’s amazing to be just listening to the numbers that you’ve been doing in the last couple of years, and sometimes it’s just changing the mindset. It’s reducing the friction, making it easy to be a foster and getting your staff to, and in every single conversation, Great, you signed up for a foster program, you should be a foster, right? And, like you said, anybody that walks through the door, giving them the opportunity, to say, Listen, can you help us foster? Right? We understand you’re not able to keep these animals permanently. But, you know, can you foster them for a few more weeks? And usually, like you said, the answer is gonna be yes.
Yeah, we recently partnered with Maddie’s Fund. Ah, and the research they’re doing on lowering quarters all levels, by putting animals into just overnight or weekend fosters. Back in March, we ran a sleepover program, where we would have people come and take a dog for two nights, maybe even one night. And then they would give us their feedback on how the animal did in their home. And those animals came back, so much calmer, refreshed, ready to meet the day, you know, showing less anxiety in their enclosures. They barked less. They jumped on the door less. Which obviously makes them much better candidates for adoption, because people appreciate seeing a dog standing on all four feet in a kennel, instead of jumping up, barking at them when they walk up. So, um, we’re building that program, so that we continue to have that short term foster availability, not only for the dogs but for the cats as well. Cats typically need a little bit more time to settle into a home. But you know, it’s kitten season and kittens, man, they’re resilient. They will settle in anywhere. Yeah, that’s true. Kittens get over it pretty quick, right? As long as there’s food and something to do, this piece of yarn and a ball, they’re pretty happy. Yeah, talk about low cost in Richmond. Yeah, exactly.
So now what’s next for you guys? What? What’s your goals for this year, for next year? My next goal is to move away from animal sheltering, um, altogether. I want to see what it looks like to be able to run a huge organization like we have, where 80% of our animals are in foster care. Wow, now put it into context for people. How big is your organization? How many adoptions a year? We do about 2400 adoptions a year. So we’re looking to run a foster program, where animals will come into the building and to get the medical services that they need, um and then they’ll go right back out to foster homes that same day. Uh, we’ll bring in animals for spay and neuter, get them altered and put them back in foster care and get them adopted. I think it’s a tremendous goal. And do you think you’re gonna be able to achieve it? We’re almost there. We were gonna set it for our fiscal year 2020 goal, but this summer, we kind of knocked that out of the park. Oh, did you? For a couple of weeks there we had, uh, 78% of our animals in foster care. To the point where we didn’t have enough animals, here in the building, available for adoption. So we’re trying to be strategic about where our animals are and putting them up for adoption, based on when we know that people are coming to adopt. So that we can maintain a really high level of care for the animals, by allowing them to stay in those foster homes and then possibly just come back here on those days that we know the adopters are gonna be here to adopt them. Yeah. No, I’m curious. I mean, do you, have you started to notice the trend in adoptions, that you know people don’t necessarily have to come to the shelter as they see them online. They’re able to find the information. It’s becoming more virtual. We’re doing everything we can, to get animals seen in public and get them adopted directly from the fosters homes.
But we also have a day outing program, where any of the animals or any of the dogs, typically, some of the cats are up for this, as well as our Adventure Tales Program. Where we allow any one of our animals to go out on an adventure tale with anybody from the public. They can take them to parks, trails, running. They can take them home for the day if they want to. So that they’re wearing Adopt Me vests. And you know, signage that says, I’m available for adoption. So everybody they come in contact with, knows that that animal available for adoption. Because remember when I said that coming to animal shelters is scary? Yeah. That’s what the majority of the population still thinks. Sure. So let’s meet them where they are. They’re out downtown. They’re out at shopping centers. They’re out at parks. They’re everywhere here and in between. And we’re gonna put those animals in their face and show them, adoption is the way to go. Yeah. No, I love that. I think it’s thinking outside the box. It’s trying to set really aggressive goals, but you’re also finding, they’re not aggressive enough, right? You’re blowing your own goals out of the water. I want to help more animals. I want our adoptions to be closer to 3000 a year. 4000 a year. Nice.
This is all, this is all really exciting to hear, Sarah. Now, I mean, and in your story it is pretty amazing to know that just a couple of years ago, you weren’t even into this at all. So, I was sitting at home with my kids. Yeah, exactly. Now this has become your passion, and the movement and animals are better off for it. So, yes, I think my biggest success, and this is not necessarily just getting myself off up off the couch. It’s the people that I have brought to this journey with me. I have an amazing team of staff members, who I just am absolutely thrilled to work with and to see their growth and see how they are coming onto this journey is, it’s the real reason why I’m here. I thought it was always for the animals. I’m here to help these people, help these animals, and I just couldn’t be more thankful. Yeah, no, it’s really nice to hear that that’s, you know, worked out just the way that you always intended it. You just didn’t know that. So. Nope, you just have to keep trying things out.
Well, this has been really fun talking to you today, Sarah. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up? I love the fact that you guys are going out into the industry and talking to the professionals out there, to find out how they got started, where they are, what got them there, where they plan ongoing. And I am sure that it’s making a huge difference in getting more people involved. So I just wanted to say thank you, for moving forward with this and for allowing me to particulate as well. Well, I’m very glad to have the opportunity to meet you and to learn about all the amazing things you’re doing. And I look forward to keeping the discussions going with you guys. It sounds like Fredericksburg is a very innovative and forward-thinking organization, and I welcome the opportunity to keep working with you guys. We’re crazy lucky to live in the community that we do! Thank you. Well, thank you so much for coming on today, Sarah. It was great to talk to you, Chris, as well. Have a great day.
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