Episode 117 – Melanie Sadek

117 Melanie Sadek_FB

121 Tom Van Winkle_FB

 

Melanie Sadek is the Executive Director of Valley Humane Society. She has worked in both for-profit and non-profit environments, including 11 years of corporate and small business management. As manager of the traffic safety department for the California State Automobile Association, Melanie worked to develop education and outreach programs and build volunteer coalitions. She was also instrumental in governmental affairs activities, facilitating effective marketing outreach programs, and screening non-profit funding requests.


Website: https://valleyhumane.org/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/valleyhumanesociety

 

“Welcome to the Professionals in Animal Rescue podcast where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue.  This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com.  Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters, and the only site that automates rescue relay transport.  Now, on with our show!

Melanie Sadek opened Murphy’s Paw, a retail store in Downtown Pleasanton, selling dog and cat supplies back in 2007. During the four years she owned the store, Melanie credits drawing brand recognition and great community support. Melanie’s excellent relationship building skills, coupled with their marketing and public relations experience, have allowed Valley Humane Society to step out of the shadows and become a more visible animal welfare leader within the Tri-Valley region. Her dedication to supporting the community was recognized in 2016 when she received the Tri-Valley Hero award for her community spirit.

Hey, Melanie, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to have you. So tell us about you and kind of how you got into all of this. So I have a crazy, crazy kind of story. Probably like many people. I owned a dog store, dog and cat supply store in Pleasanton, and my husband was, for a very short time, was on the board at Valley Humane Society. And when he left the board, he recommended that I take the seat, which is not something that I was very excited about, because why do I need more work? Right. But I met with the board chair and realized that the organization was having some issues, and I have a kind of an interesting background. And so I just offered my support. And this is the very short version of how it ended up that Valley Humane and in this industry. And I ended up going in and trying to help them because Valley Humane was pretty much going out of business. It was during the, I don’t know, what do we call it, ‘The Great Depression.’ Now the—. That’s great, ‘The Great Depression’ was in the 30’s. So I think, you mean the financial crisis of 2008 or something? Yeah, but they call it from—I don’t know. Okay. Anyway, we were—the organization was really struggling. Donations were down. They had made some commitments to build a building, and they didn’t have a capital campaign to support it. And so they ended up offering me the Executive Director job after just a couple of months working with them. And I’ve been there ever since. And we’re doing really, really well.

I did a marketing campaign about maybe it two months in, called Save Our Shelter. We raised $320,000. Wow. Got ourselves out of the hole. Now we’ve got $1.2 million in the bank. We’ve got, you know, very, very much in a nice, sustainable position. But I had never even walked into an animal shelter before I took the job. Really? Maybe that’s why they were attracted to you, because you weren’t bringing any of the baggage with you from having done this before. I don’t know. Maybe. Or just maybe it’s because I’m awesome and have great skills. I’m sorry. I did miss that. It’s because you’re awesome and you have amazing skills. That’s what it is.

So you didn’t know anything about this? You just, your husband was on the board and he said, “Hey, you should go get on the board,” and then you went and interviewed and they said, “No, why don’t you be the ED?” Pretty much. Yeah, it’s been such a great experience for me. I’ve been going all the way back into my history. When I was 20 years old, I was in college and I became really passionate about child passenger safety and really, I mean, for fun. I would take a bath and read the owner’s manuals to different car seats that had just come out. Wow, well that is kinda crazy. I would call the manufacturers, and I find out why they said this or that. I’d called the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, get clarity around certain federal motor vehicle safety standards. And so I ended up kind of convincing AAA in San Francisco to hire me, and it was really one of the best experiences I’ve ever had because I was in a division where I was really trained to do a lot of public relations. So I was able to go on TV and represent the organization as a subject matter expert. And I was in the marketing division, so I learned so much about branding and marketing and a lot about governmental affairs. I testified and worked on legislation in three different states, reviewed legislation all over the country for other AAA clubs.

When I opened the store, I opened it because we had just had a baby and I just did not want to keep commuting all the way to San Francisco on public transportation, where I didn’t really feel like I had enough control over when I could be at home. But the store I’m just not a good retail store owner. The store is still open, somebody bought it from us. It’s still successful, but I love working with teams of people to make a difference. I need to feel like I’m making a difference. And so, believe it or not, the world of highway safety is very similar to the world of animal welfare. You have very dedicated people working together to save as many lives as possible. There are definitely differences, like animal welfare is significantly underfunded compared to highway safety initiatives.

I remember my first month probably on the job, calling Maddie’s Fund and saying, “okay, just give me the industry standards” like I have never been in this deal before. I can see industry standards. How do you clean? How do you do this? “They’re like yet those things don’t exist.” I’m like, “really?” And so you know, it is a big learning curve, and you kind of just had to learn things on your own, but it’s really been fantastic. And if it weren’t for—I have a twin sister—Mandy Evans. She is the Executive Director of the Panhandle Animal Shelter, and she got the job in January of 2011. And I don’t even know if I would have recognized that this job was something that I could do or that it was even in my wheelhouse if it weren’t for her getting that job first and us talking about it. So she probably is the reason that I’m really in the field. Wow. Well, that’s good. We’ll have to thank her for that because that’s an interesting path that you took to get there.

And I’m curious. So you talked to the board chair, right? And then they offered you the job, and I can imagine you show up for work day one and your staff kind of looks like when you go, “I don’t know what we’re doing. So teach me.” How did you figure everything out? Well, I knew that we were not necessarily doing everything the way it needed to be done. And so mostly I just listened to everybody and learned what everyone was doing. And then I compared stuff to what Mandy was doing and calling other people to find out and realizing that, you know, some of the cleaning that we were doing wasn’t appropriate. And so it was–I mean, talk about on the job training. I went and met with Nancy McKinney at Marin Humane. I met with Allison Lindquist East Bay SPCA. I mean, I just really did everything I could to quickly figure out how this industry works with just kind of fun, right? Like some people love to just go, get to work and sit down and do the same job every day. And that’s fantastic. It’s just not for me. And so it was fun to learn about this industry.

Tell us a little bit about the shell tricks. I’m just curious how big it is, like how many intakes and things that you do? So we do not have a very large shelter. It’s 5,000 square feet. This year, I think we’re gonna bring in about 750-800 animals. Okay. But when it was built, it was built with a big focus on having a lot of cats and only a few dogs. But we have a large foster network, so our goal is always to have animals in the facility that are actually available for adoption so that any animal recovering or waiting for clearance to be adopted spends time in a foster home, and that’s really helped us get our numbers up. Our length of stay for a dog is nine days. And our length of stay for a cat is around 20 days. That’s really good. Yeah, so we’re doing pretty well with the small space that we have to work with, and we do almost all of our adoptions out of our facility. With a few exceptions, we don’t have standing external adoption events.

So my big focus, I care so much about people. My previous career was all about people, and I just see that this is an industry that sometimes isn’t very supportive of people. And so, I really tried to highlight and promote the human-animal bond. And so we have an animal’s program where we supply 120,000 animal meals a year to low income families so that they don’t have to give up their pets. And we do that through partnerships with a lot of our, kind of, nonprofits that are working in health and Human Services. Yeah, we have a Human Education Program. We’ve got a Canine Comfort Pet Therapy Program. We have 200 pet therapy handlers that do some really, really incredible work in some of the most sensitive places in our area. And I’m just in awe of these incredible people that give up so much of their own time and their own emotional, kind of, place to go in and sit with patients like George Mark Children’s House, where children are many times terminal and they grieve the loss of these children, and then they go back again because they know they’re making a difference, and it takes a really incredible person to do that kind of work. Yeah, definitely does.

I’m curious then, your background in public relations and marketing. I mean, how did that influence the way that you run the shelter? I am a big believer in branding, setting values and then holding everyone accountable to those values. So that was a really big deal for us and it still is. And so we worked very hard to ensure that we were a trusted animal rescue in the community. And that meant that we put the best volunteers’ faces forward, that we increased our professionalism. So when you saw us, at any event, I mean, these are small, little things that can make a big difference. But just making sure that your booth is professional looking. People are attracted to success. Sure. So the more successful you appear, the more trusting people will think that you are, which is crazy. But it’s the test materials. Yeah, that’s just how it is.

Yes, and so we really invested in making sure that our brand was clean, like our actual brand imaging represented the quality that we wanted. And we have some very strong, kind of, brand statements that we require all of our board members, employees, volunteers to stand by and one of them is that we believe in people. Nobody has any excuse ever in our facility to put down another person. And so if somebody’s just surrendering their animal, we’re not gonna allow anybody to say anything bad about that person because it’s just not fair to judge people for the decisions that they have to make. And we don’t necessarily always agree with some of the things that we see. But we also don’t need to cater to an environment where we’re not being supportive.

Another one that’s really big for us is that we don’t ever put others down to elevate ourselves. And I think this is a big deal and rescues specifically. You know, if you choose to talk bad about a rescue next door, let’s say, it really doesn’t look good that you’re talking bad about anybody, so we do not tolerate that. So there is another group near us. They used to be part of us, like, 25 years ago, and people will come in and they’ll say something bad about that group because they think it’s something that we want to hear. And we just don’t play into that. There’s just not a place for us not to support each other. And one of my biggest messages with that is in our two counties, we cross over two counties. There’s about 30,000 animals a year that enter those two facilities, and we’re only able to impact 750 of them.

If it weren’t for all the rescues and the other shelters in our area, we would never be able to have the impact individually that we have collectively. And so we can’t be successful if we aren’t supporting each other. And this isn’t about donation dollars. If you get a bequest, you’ll see there could be up to 10 animal welfare groups listed on a bequest. And so people they donate to anywhere from 5 to 10 different like-minded groups. So I think we need to be less focused on competing with each other, too. I absolutely agree with that, and I love that because we do need to remember that we’re all in it together, right rolling it. Same cause the same reason and sure it seems like there’s limited r resources. It seems like there’s, you know, this competition, but you kind of step back and you go, “Why? What are we competing for,” Right and “why I put out negative messages.” Who does that really help? Think about all the negative messages in animal welfare. You know, it’s terrible.

And I have the great privilege to be on the board for the California Animal Welfare Association, where we support public shelters and private shelters. And when I first started again, I didn’t have any experience. So when I got on this board, I had never really had a lot of experience with shelter directors that ran public governmental contracting agencies. And so I didn’t even know what their life saving focus was gonna be. And these are people who have some of the largest public shelters in the states, one of them in the whole country, and they’re so focused on trying to save lives. And yet people are so quick to diminish them and really, it’s hard to fill positions in California in government run agencies because people who are so harsh yeah, that’s too bad, because again they are trying to do the right thing and you can always find bad apples in the world. But in general, people are trying to do the right thing. They’re trying with the best intent, and I always say, “give them a helping hand, educate them, show them the right way to do it. If you don’t agree with what they’re doing.” Help them get funding.

Almost all lifesaving resources cost money. And if you want there to be a TNR program because there’s too many feral cats being euthanized, I mean, the reality is government agencies are not getting funded, not the way they should be. These are the people that are prosecuting animal cruelty. They’re the ones that are out there fighting against orders. I mean, their job is just all about helping animals, and yet people are so quick to focus on this negative piece that many times the obstacles are stacked against them. And so how do we as a community, work with these shelters to provide the resources that they need for better life saving outcomes. I really love that I’m a big fan of coalitions and working together and supporting, and it doesn’t always have to be monetary. It can be as you talked about. It could be different programs that were helping. It can just be sharing knowledge or sharing volunteers. There’s so many different things that we can do to support one another. I agree.

So what have you learned about yourself throughout this process? Well, I like to be the boss. Okay, you learned that, that’s good. That’s hard and fun and terrible at the same time. There’s definitely times where I would love to not be the boss. But I think the key thing for me is that I don’t know that I can really do a job that isn’t helping other people. It’s very critical to my happiness to know that I’m making a difference. That’s really cool.

So what’s next for you? Where do you see this going? I don’t know. I can’t imagine leaving Valley Humane and we’re about to put a hospital on our site. One of the reasons that our length of stay is even at nine days for a dog is because we’ve been, for 32 years, utilizing local veterinarians to do our spay and neuter surgeries, and the appointments are getting harder and harder to fill. We have a veterinarian on staff. She can do these surgeries, and so the next big thing for us is we’re putting a triple-wide portable on our property next door so we can do our own surgeries, and we’re hoping that through that will be able to provide services to rescue groups in our area. And one day, to the public. Oh cool. So trying to make it into a low-cost spay /neuter clinic? Yeah.

And maybe other things like I don’t know about where everyone else is in the country. But here, if you need teeth extracted on a Chihuahua, you’re gonna pay over $1,000. Wow. Yeah, if you have a barrel obstruction that used to cost to $2,000 just two years ago. Now you’re pushing at least five grand. Wow. And it’s no wonder people can’t afford the services it’s very similar to human health care. You know, economic euthanasia isn’t really tracked, but I can only imagine that it’s pretty high here because people literally just, you know, it’s like an expensive place to live. And unfortunately, animal care falls under discretionary income, and some people just don’t have it. They don’t have the ability to do these life-saving surgeries, And one of the things that kills me is when we get a phone call at Valley Humane that an owner, they have, let’s just say they have a dog, and it’s a bowel obstruction surgery. And it’s life or death, and it’s going to be $5,000. And the vet says the dogs, only nine months old, would you guys be willing to take it in and pay the bill and find it a new home? It’s like, “well, dear God, you know, if it’s between the dog dying or us doing that, then yeah, we’ll do it. But why can’t that family that already loves that dog keep that dog? Why did we have to find a new home? Yeah, why can’t we help return them back to their owners? Yes, it’s just not—yeah, and I feel I mean, veterinarians. They have it. I mean, their debt to income ratio because of their student loans is terrible. I don’t know any veterinarian that’s wealthy driving a Tesla around town, so it’s I mean, it’s just kind of this cycle of things costing more. And maybe people not having the resources to do what they need to do. So I just think we need to help them. I love that your focus is on people and on animals, right?

So we all love animals, but we had to love people as well because the people are the ones that are going to care for the animals. And as you said, why would we take the animals away from the people that they know? From their family? Why not work with them to keep the animals in their homes, right? And people often, you know, they turn that story around and make it seem like, “well, if those people really love their animal, they would come up with a way to pay for it.” And most people, when you do an analysis of those that utilize government support and those kind of programs, there are always like you said before, there are bad apples. But the majority of people who utilize services they genuinely need those services, and they’re not doing it just to take advantage. And so again, I just feel like if we’re really in it for the animals, we have to be in it for the people too. Yeah, I absolutely agree. And it sounds like in the rules that you’re doing that you’re gonna be able to have a greater and greater impact, which is really cool. Yeah, let’s hope Yeah, for sure.

So Melanie is this how you thought things would turn out? No. Who would have thought that Mandy and I would have the same job? Yeah, you’re obviously very different in the way you grew up and things like that, and in your passions. But now you both ended up in similar positions. Yeah, it is crazy. And I think like with Mandy, I was very driven to go to college and to do all these things, and she was very driven to just get stuff done. And so I think that it just speaks a lot, too. If you can follow. I’m a really big believer that you love something, you should volunteer doing it. And then the road will take you where you want to go. And so you know, who would have thought? Even with my highway safety stuff? I did not get paid for many years to do all that. And it led me to a really well paying job where I got to make a huge difference.

And so I tell young people all the time. If you really are interested in something, just volunteer and see where your passion takes you. If you’re really good at it and your passion’s strong enough, you could make a career out of it. That’s really good advice. I mean, we are all here on Earth for just such a short time. You might as well enjoy it and do what you love and make an impact and let the cards fall where they will. Yeah I agree. Well, Melanie, this has been really great having you on the program today, and I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. Is there anything else you want to mention before wrap things up? No, I appreciate being highlighted, I think it’s very flattering. I am honored to be asked. Well, I’m very excited that you came on the program. It was really great to talk to you, and hopefully we’ll get to talk again in the future. Perfect. Sounds great.

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