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UnChained Employs Unique Approach to Helping Kids and Dogs

Santa Cruz Gives’ additional animal-centric nonprofits include BirchBark Foundation, Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter and the SPCA

Robin Lynn, a teen who went through UnChained’s unique program, and friend Reggie in Watsonville. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula

In her youth, Robin Lynn was homeless and alternating between several unstable living situations. Like many young teens, she also suffered from low self-confidence and had not yet discovered the voice that would allow her to speak up for herself.

That has all changed thanks to UnChained, a program that pairs young people with dogs in need of training. The idea, says founder Melissa Wolf, is to make the dogs one day adoptable and give them a second chance at a better life.

But this success gives the participants a second chance of their own, she says.

The nonprofit was founded in 2011 and began the next year at Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas. Now operating in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties, the program runs, among other places, in juvenile halls in San Jose and Santa Cruz.

The program boasts nearly 400 graduates since its inception.

It is raising funds this holiday season through Good Times’ annual Santa Cruz Gives campaign, a crowdsourcing initiative that helps county nonprofits.

Working with a fellow participant and a dog named Lady, Lynn says she discovered something surprising about herself. 

“I learned how to use my voice,” she says. “And I learned that I have more confidence than I thought I did. I learned how to be by myself and stand up for myself in any situation.

Now 19, she is an ebullient young woman with a quick laugh and a surplus of confidence. She hopes to study nursing, with a possible focus in trauma or pediatrics.

“I may be [5-foot, 8-inches], but I swear to god I’m a giant when somebody wants to talk to me about something,” she says. “I am always trying to show a better side of myself to be able to be a higher person.”

Wolf says this is precisely the fundamental idea of the program—by allowing young “at-risk” people to have a positive impact on another sentient being—and in turn, learning empathy for themselves and others—both get a fresh start.

Participants range in age from 11-24, and are referred through schools and juvenile justice programs, among other places. Some have gang ties, some come from homes with addiction, or are addicts themselves.

The dogs are referred from local shelters. Many participants and dogs have been removed from abusive situations.

“The kids can immediately relate to the dogs, because a lot of kids share the same stories,” Wolf says.

Wolf spent nearly three decades in the social services industry before a desire for a new direction in life prompted her to take a course to become a certified humane education specialist. This field of study, among other things, connects animal welfare with human rights. As part of that process, she worked with a local Child Protective Services program, which cemented the new phase in her life.

“I was looking at the kids in our community that are suffering in so many different ways,” Wolf says. “If we can teach kindness to animals, there is enough evidence to show that that kindness can transfer to humans.”

The eight-week course teaches participants how to communicate through a praise and reward system, rather than force and punishment, Wolf says.

“A lot of our kids have experienced the latter in their lives,” she says. “This gives them another option of communication.”

Wolf says that Lynn has become a member of the UnChained team, serving on the Youth Advisory Committee and working at several fundraising events such as the Capitola Art and Wine Festival and the Big Sur Marathon.

She says the classes are kept intentionally small—just three groups of two, each with one dog and one coach.

The program has four goals: giving a new future to both participants and dogs, giving them a chance to right the wrongs they may have committed through a restorative justice program, allowing them to master a skill and improving their level of empathy.

“The healing animals bring us—there’s no duplicating anywhere else,” Wolf says. “And because there is no judgment—no matter what gang a kid might be affiliated with, what ethnicity, what race, what income level, dogs will accept as long as you’re kind to them.”

Here are other animal-serving nonprofits that are participating in Santa Cruz Gives:

BirchBark Foundation

Founded by veterinarian Dr. Merrianne Burtch, this group helps people afford often insurmountable medical bills for their pets. Too often, she says, those bills force owners to surrender their animals.

The organization’s “Big Idea” for 2022 is “Love Heals.” BirchBark will provide stability to vulnerable families faced with fixable but unaffordable urgent veterinary care. Its goal is to save the lives of 100 pets with Santa Cruz Gives funds. 

Santa Cruz County has a population of 273,000, with an estimated 60,000 dogs and likely as many cats. There are 59 veterinary premise licenses in the county, and 273 veterinarians licensed. An estimated 25% of the dogs and cats in the county, or 30,000 pets, are owned by seniors, low-income families or marginalized populations.

Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter Foundation

With an intake exceeding 5,000 animals a year, SCCAS has a bedrock of municipal funding for core services such as animal control, licensing, rabies vaccinations, housing for strays and surrenders and intervention in animal abuse cases. Other funding is required for SCCAS’s key preventive initiatives. This is where the foundation comes in. 

The organization’s “Big Idea” for 2022 is “Creating A More Human Community.” 

Shelters have become comprehensive centers that set important “best practices” standards in animal welfare, helping to create a more humane community. The Animal Shelter’s current campus expansion continues this mission by increasing its free and low-cost spay and neuter services, and focusing on other preventative programs that keep animals out of the shelter.

Santa Cruz SPCA and Humane Society

This organization provides safe harbor for animals in need and promotes an active humane community through adoption, advocacy and education.

Its “Big Idea” for 2022 is “A Building for a Better Future.” The Santa Cruz SPCA’s new animal shelter opened December 2020; it is six times larger than its previous location and was designed to fulfill a variety of animal welfare needs. Social and economic challenges have increased the demand for services, and the new building allows for programs to grow along with the needs of the community.

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