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Paw-some partnership: How a helping paw is creating employment pathways

Odin Hensley has always loved animals, but never imagined they would play such a big role in giving him the confidence and skills he needed to step towards self-dependence and a job. 


“I’ve loved getting to learn the signs animals make and how that affects their behaviour,” says the 24-year-old, among a group of young people experiencing social isolation to have joined a specialised program run by Happy Paws Happy Hearts. 


Founded in 2014, Happy Paws Happy Hearts has teamed up with animal rescue organisations such as RSPCA to provide a safe environment for program participants to care for rescued furry, feathered or scaley friends while building up their own social connections, skills and confidence.


“The instructors have helped me become more comfortable and understand tasks that would’ve been quite complicated and difficult without them,” says Hensley, who is autistic. He’s attended the program for the past two years at Toowoomba's RSPCA shelter, one of seven locations around the country where up to 500 people join sessions each week facilitated by Happy Paws Happy Hearts. 


“It’s been a chance to improve myself in life and as a person in general,” he says.

New job-readiness program

Earlier this year, Hensley had the opportunity to take his participation to another level, when Happy Paws Happy Hearts rolled out ‘Explore’ in Toowoomba, a new program designed to help participant’s reach their vocational goals. 


"A lot of our participants come to us deeply socially isolated, so much so that leaving the house once a week is a terrifying challenge,” explains Kellie Ireland, deputy CEO of the social enterprise. 


“Once they’ve been with us for some time, we see participants transform and, for many, they start to want a little more,” she says. “So, we created ‘Explore’ to help make that next transition not so scary – whether it’s into employment, or further study or independent volunteering. Around 70 per cent of participants are young people and most have dropped out of school, so it's really important to us that we help show them they've got value and skills to offer.”


During the 24-week job-readiness program, first piloted in 2020 in Happy Paws Happy Heart’s site in Wacol, Brisbane, participants learn skills such as applying for a job, interview techniques and workplace communication.  

Animals help connect dots

“We bring the program to life by integrating animals into the training curriculum,” Ireland explains. 


“For example, we’ll ask them to write a resume for a shelter animal, which helps them think about how you position that animal for its forever home. When they then go on to write a resume for themselves it seems less terrifying and a lot more fun."


Graduates are offered a work placement or study opportunity aligned with their personal goals, providing them with hands-on experience. Ireland says, to date, around 66 percent of participants have gone on to employment, further study or independent volunteering. 


Hensley says, aside from forming new valued friendships, he learnt many practical life skills during the ‘Explore’ program, from understanding about local transport, to writing resumes and preparing for job interviews. 


“They helped to break it down step-by-step each week, and helped me to feel confident and ready for when I apply for part-time or casual work,” he says. 


“They even helped find some workplaces that fit with my interests and values. For the future, I’m planning on getting a workplace that fits with my interests, values, and skills, and learn even more life skills along the way, and help me become more self-dependent. I’ll never forget my time with the Explore Program and glad I’ve met everyone through Happy Paws.” 

Support to drive impact

Ireland says the program was backed by Westpac Foundation from day one, both from a funding perspective – including an Inclusive Employment Grant which enabled the expansion of the ‘Explore’ program into Toowoomba – and an “on-the-ground” operational perspective.


The non-financial support has included the unlocking of opportunities by the volunteer Westpac employees matched as “Community Ambassadors” to the social enterprise, such as coordinating Westpac branch staff to run financial literacy sessions as part of the ‘Explore’ program at their local Happy Paws Happy Hearts sites. The sessions aim to make the process of banking a little less daunting for the young participants by improving their financial confidence and introducing them to friendly faces from their local branch. 


“I can't get over how invested our Westpac Community Ambassadors – Jamie and Mel – are,” Ireland says. 


“They’ve connected us to all these resources within the Westpac network that we would not otherwise have been aware of. Their beautiful hearts, their genuine passion, professionalism and networks have made a catalytic impact for us.”