ANN ARBOR – As I continue to write and cover events Ann Arbor, it's becoming more common to bump into people, exchange information, and learn more about what they're doing in the city. This was the case when I met the Animal Advocates of Ann Arbor, also named A4, at their launch party a few weeks back. After making the appropriate introductions, our respective A4 groups hit it off and we agreed to meet for a more in-depth, formal interview.
Animal Advocates of Ann Arbor is group of young professionals who gather resources for, and increase awareness about, the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV), while advocating for national animal welfare. The group is led by Stephanie Barnhill, who created the project after falling in love with HSHV and discussing the benefits a possible young professional group could bring to the organization. She later met with Joy Johnsen, HSHV's special events coordinator, who fully supported the idea and provided Stephanie with HSHV's volunteer list. From there, an email was sent out to see if there was interest, and while there were a few more formalities to get everything in place, the rest, as they say, is history.
I met not only with Stephanie, but co-chairs and HSHV volunteers Carolyn Schafer Geurin and Randy Smith as well, to discuss A4, our shared love of animals and what we love about Ann Arbor. It was truly a pleasure to meet such a talented group of individuals whose passion and dedication for animal advocacy is nothing short of inspirational.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Where does your passion for animal advocacy come from?
Stephanie Barnhill: Growing up we always had animals that were from the local shelter in Indiana. When I moved to Colorado and my husband and I got married, we adopted our first dog who was officially “ours” as a family. We adopted from a no kill shelter in Denver, and that’s when we started discovering what shelters do. We later adopted a second dog from a different shelter in Denver, and when we moved here we adopted our third dog at Livingston County Animal Control. From there we understood what we need to be doing as people and as individuals in our communities to help rescue animals and to help make sure that they’re getting a quality of life. I just think it’s something we really need to do. I’m in love with my dogs and just think that everything I do is in honor of our pups. I'm just hoping to help them all like our three.
How did you get involved with volunteering at the Humane Society of Huron Valley?
Carolyn Schafer Geurin: I actually looked online because I was trying to figure out how to get involved with the Humane Society. I found out that Tiny Lions desperately needed volunteers last November, so I went there and did the new orientation training. With Tiny Lions it was really different because of all the varieties of cats you encounter. It was really a nice experience. [As a result] we ended up adopting a cat from HSHV two months ago. I just love being there and watching [things like that] happen. It’s pretty incredible.
How did that end up transitioning into Animal Advocates of Ann Arbor?
Carolyn: I received [Stephanie's] email and realized [the project] was something I would love. I was involved in a bunch of different groups in college and wanted to do something similar. There were a couple different steps, but when we all met together I knew it was what I wanted. A lot of times with young professional groups they're very networking-based, and the focus of A4 was on the Humane Society and the animal advocacy piece. That was huge for me.
Randy Smith: I moved to Ann Arbor a few years ago and found out about the Humane Society and thought it seemed like an awesome place to volunteer. Then one day [Stephanie's] email came through and I said to myself that I would love to make a bigger impact other than donating a couple of dollars here and there. I wanted to do whatever I could to help [these animals]. A4 was a great fit.
What are the immediate future plans for A4? What are the long term goals?
Carolyn: We came up with the mission first, then over the summer we came up with the name, "Animal Advocates of Ann Arbor," and then we decided late in the summer that we needed to have a launch.That launch took place last week as a fundraising event for HSHV, so for us right now that’s pretty much it. For immediate future goals, we need to figure out what our main fundraising event is going to be for the Humane Society.
Have you brainstormed any potential events?
Randy: What we’ve talked about is having one big event a year and a number of small events to raise awareness and hopefully raise a few dollars. But that one big event is our major focus right now.
Stephanie: The other thing we want to do is have a team at HSHV's Walk and Wag every year. We’ll have the A4 team there, we'll invite all of our members, friends, family and then anyone else from the community who wants to join us as well. It’s definitely an event we want to participate in.
Has HSHV given any words of encouragement, or advice?
Stephanie: They’ve been really excited about our group since day one. They were very new to understanding what a young professionals group, but after starting to understand what this could look like and how we could support them, they continued to get more excited. I definitely think they are very much on board and very open to providing whatever support they can, but we also want to be very cautious about not asking too much of staff time. We really want to function as independently as possible.
Carolyn: Joy, every time we meet with her, is always so excited. She was at the launch and was very supportive. She has been talking with the Humane Society about different ways that we can work together. That’s also in the works.
Shifting gears a little bit, we're All About Ann Arbor and you're Animal Advocates of Ann Arbor. I have to ask: What about Ann Arbor excites you?
Carolyn: In our mission statement we do say that we advocate for Washtenaw, so I will be the Ypsilanti representative. That’s really what draws me in. I drive to Ann Arbor for our events and meetings and I do love it, but I’m really more of an Ypsi person. I think that the sense of community in Ypsilanti is so strong and really a special place.
Stephanie: My husband and I were living in Denver and after a while we just started to realize that Denver might not be where we wanted to end up. I went to Ann Arbor in college a few times to visit folks, and I remembered loving it. So we went there in February of 2011 and we absolutely fell in love with Ann Arbor and Detroit and moved in September of 2011. Now we live in Brighton, but I work in Ann Arbor and we spend a ton of time in Ann Arbor. We don’t feel like we have to be in the city to really enjoy it and love it.
Randy: I’ve lived all over Michigan and I really like it. Grand Rapids is an amazing town, I love and miss that area, but this is pretty close. Ann Arbor is nice because downtown has so much activity and a lot of events going on. There’s always something to do.
How would you describe your ideal perfect day in the city?
Carolyn: I lived it. This past summer, I woke up to a beautiful summer day and my husband and I went to Cultivate in Depot Town for coffee and lemonade. From there we went to the DIYpsi Festival, which is incredible, and had lunch at Arbor Brewing Company. Later we went to the Blind Pig for a concert, which was awesome because it's a great venue. It’s really small and intimate, putting you right there with the artist. That was the best day.
Randy: The only thing Ann Arbor is missing is a really nice beach. If it had that, it would actually be great. My perfect day involves playing golf with some friends, eating a good sandwich at lunch, probably someplace downtown, doing some lake or beach activities, and then going to check out a brewpub.
Stephanie: That’s pretty easy. I would probably grab brunch at Seva, hang out at Crazy Wisdom for a bit, head over to the Jolly Pumpkin for lunch, go to the Ark, and then probably grab a drink at Aventura.
Going back to A4: What do each of you bring to the project as individuals?
Stephanie: One of the best things I did was put these two, Randy and Carolyn, as co-chairs of A4 because they are amazing leaders and they’re going to lead this group into wonderful places. Currently, I'm the communications chair, which right now means working on our E Newsletters, supporting social media with things here and there and doing a bit of PR. When it comes to PR for A4, we want to be really careful because we’re not speaking on behalf of the Humane Society whatsoever. We’re our own group and we support HSHV's efforts, which is great, but we also are going to have our own identity and we’re still figuring out what that is. For right now the PR stuff is just making sure people know what we do.
Carolyn: When I envision this group, my biggest goal is to keep everyone on the same path of raising awareness and funds for the Humane Society, but like Steph said, having our own identity while making sure everybody’s engaged and is getting what they want out of the group too. Educating the community as to the reasons why people should advocate for animals and focus more on rescues and shelters is also a key focus of mine.
Randy: One of the big things I can bring to the group is to try and anchor us in reality. We have big ideas, but my question is always: How are we actually going to accomplish this? How do we get from here to there? For me I’m really good at establishing that process. Figuring out how we make those ideas a reality is important.
Stephanie, you talked about the confusion that sometimes exists around a young professionals group. Set the record straight: How do you define it?
Stephanie: I can just speak to A4. A Young Professionals group usually consists of people in their 20s and 30s, which just means that we’re a very concentrated group that targets our peers for events. A lot of times nonprofits and other organizations tend to miss our age group. The people that volunteer are usually retired or have a little more time to give during the work week. As a result, young professional groups like ours will have weekend events and other events that aren't during the workday. Though our events might target people in their 20s and 30s, or the things that they typically like to do – karaoke, sports events, etc. – it does not mean that those ages will be the only ones who come. We want everyone of all ages in the community to come to our events and enjoy themselves by joining us in our advocacy efforts. As a young professional group, it just means that our target market is usually people in their 20s and 30s to engage that population.
Anything else about A4 that you want to add, that you want people to know about?
Stephanie: Right now our focus is supporting the Humane Society. I think that there are so many different things we could do to help animals. We’re on the brink of learning what some of these opportunities are, and not just in Ann Arbor but throughout Michigan and maybe even the country. But right now we’re really focused on what can we do to support this already amazing organization that is already doing so many things for wildlife, domestic animals, rehabilitation and rescue efforts, community outreach and education. There are so many things that they’re doing so well that our focus is on how can we best support them. I think as our group continues to grow and we start to know who we are a bit more, we can start to really see what other opportunities we have.
Carolyn: The bottom line? Adopt don’t shop.
Randy: We’re a new group and we have a lot to figure out. There’s a lot we don’t know and we’re doing many things to try to figure out what we can do in addition to fundraising. Hopefully there’s a lot more to come.
Stephanie: I would also say that we really hope that the community reaches out to us. A lot of the ways in which we’re going to grow will depend on what the community is interested in. What events do they want? What’s important to them? We’re going to take a lot of that into consideration as we continue to grow.