Philadelphia Lawyer Connects At Risk Youth To At Risk Animals, Together They Help Each Other.

    Penny Ellison is an attorney and animal advocate who has run and helped grow Hand2Paw, a non-profit that connects youth experiencing homelessness or in foster care.

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    Penny Ellison with her former dog, Shaq. Penny had led Hand2Paw for more than a decade. Photo provided.

    Penny Ellison with her former dog, Shaq. Penny had led Hand2Paw for more than a decade. Photo provided.

    “I think now I would just say to my younger self, ‘hold on a little bit longer,’” says, Cherylanne Davis. “Thirteen-year-old me probably didn’t think that I would see 18 years old, let alone 21, let alone 30 or going to college.”
    At 30, Davis is in her final three semesters of undergraduate studies at Temple University. It has been a long journey. At age 10, Davis’ mother died, leaving her and 11 siblings without a parent. Foster care, education instability and homelessness became her reality.

    “I experienced so many different things that kind of forced me to grow up,” she says.

    A bright light began to shine in Davis’ life about a decade ago. While staying at Covenant House in Germantown, she says the shelter introduced her to Hand2Paw.

    “I became more vocal, more people oriented, more comfortable around people being in larger spaces and interacting with animals,” says Davis, “I also gained gainful employment out of it.”

    Providing Support for At Risk Youth.

    “They can be so useful and so helpful to animals who immediately give them that positive feedback,” says Penny Ellison, who chairs the Board of Directors for Hand2Paw. “They see that they have something to give and can be a positive agent for change.”

    Ellison has led Hand2Paw for more than a decade. The Philadelphia-based non-profit was founded by one of her students, Rachel Cohen. In 2009, while a student at University of Pennsylvania, Cohen volunteered at PAWS Grays Ferry. On her walks home, Cohen saw young people who appeared to be homeless. Many of them had dogs. Ellison says Cohen learned that the teens would not go into shelters because shelters did not allow their animals.

    Penny and Cherylanne Davis.

    “She saw that kind of unconditional love they had for the animals,” recalls Ellison, “and at the same time, she knew that the shelter didn’t have enough help … so she took those two sort of marginalized groups and put them together.”

    Ellison says the idea was “brilliant.” She supported Cohen who created a volunteer organization. In 2012, when Cohen graduated, she asked Ellison to continue the effort.

    That’s when Hand2Paw took off, growing exponentially. It went from a volunteer effort to a non-profit with a paid staff. They expanded their programming, offering job training in animal related careers and grew their support for individuals age 16 to 25 experiencing homelessness or aging out of foster care. Hand2Paw created internship opportunities, jobs and offered life skills training and wellness. Hand2Paw even has a house with a kitchen, that provides a homebase for the many youth they serve.

    “We hope that our young people go on not only to have a career that lets them make a living, but also, to be a resource to their other community members,” says Ellison.

    Helping Youth and Animals Can Be Transformational.

    Ellison grew up in Warminster in a family that owned donut shops. She says in addition to lots of chocolate and glaze all around, she recalls many of animals.

    “I always had animals growing up and all different kinds and dog cat, guinea pig, horse turtles and probably forgetting others,” says Ellison.

    It made sense that once Ellison became a partner at a law firm, she wanted to use her skills to help animals. She started teaching animal rights and ethics at University of Pennsylvania. That’s where she met Cohen and eventually got involved with Hand2Paw.

    “Hand 2 Paw got me into the nitty gritty of being in a shelter, seeing what it’s like,” she says, “I learned how to clean kennels, you know, cuddle kittens that are newborns and do all that stuff that the shelters require.”

    But for Ellison, the true shift happened when she began to work with the foster youth in the program.

    “I think I was really naive because I grew up in an intact family that supported me,” says Ellison, “but when you’re solely responsible for yourself and you’re still in a lower income position, it’s very hard to get from here to there– it’s about a lot more than just effort.”

    Ellison soon learned of the many obstacles youth face while dealing with homelessness and lack of family support.

    “I soon became less judgmental,” she says, “it takes an incredible level of persistence to make it.”

    She works to ensure that Hand2Paw can become a stabilizing force for young people who do not have a consistent adult presence in their lives.

    “It’s all about connection because a lot of these young people in the foster care system, they’ve lost all that connection– they’ve been in many, many schools, they’ve been in many, many families, they’ve been in many neighborhoods and they have no connections,” says Ellison, “so we try to play that role- be that connection.”

    Real Mentoring and Support.

    Ellison and her team have helped to create relationships with the young people who come through Hand2Paw. One of her closest relationships is with Davis, who she’s mentored for a decade.

    “To have someone have faith in you and follow you through your journey is something that I think a lot more displaced and homeless young people really do need in this world,” says Davis.

    Davis says Ellison has consistently provided advice and support.

    “I just have the utmost respect for her,” says Ellison of Davis, “she continues to push through and she’s going to get her degree. She aspires to be a lawyer and she aspires to help other people and I am absolutely certain that she’s going to be able to do it.”

    Cherylanne Petsas Therapy Provided.

    Helping Animals, Providing Stability.

    But Davis is strong and smart. She took advantage of the Hand2Paw training, earning a job at a doggy daycare where she was promoted to manager. Eventually, Davis got a job at an animal hospital, where she now works.

    “It definitely helped me in terms of feeling like I was being a productive member of society,” says Davis, “especially because as a homeless person sometimes you feel that you’re worthless or you don’t have any meaning or purpose.”

    Davis says the money she earned helped her get an apartment and take care of herself. That stability allowed her to go to school and find ways to pay for college.

    “When I graduate, I’ll be graduating with zero debt,” says Davis proudly.

    Graduation is expected to take place December 2024. Law school is next.

    “I’m going to be in school full time, taking six courses, working part time, and also doing a legal internship,” she says.

    Davis attributes her work at Hand2Paw as part of the reason for the growth she’s experienced. She says her teenage self was shy and reclusive with no support system or vision. But she was and is determined to build a good life. After all, Davis says her first name, “Cheryl,” is a name passed down three generations.

    “I definitely draw inspiration from that,” she says. “I want to make my mom and grandmom proud of me.”

    Davis also hopes to make her dog, named Cauliflower aka “Flowers” proud too. She adopted Flowers eight years ago, with Ellison’s help.

    “I just love her,” says Davis, “she makes me so happy.”

    Good Soul Work.

    “The passion and time that she puts into Hand2Paw– I just don’t know where she gets the energy,” says Gwyn Garrison.

    Garrison is an avid WHYY listener. She says when she heard about the Good Souls Project, she had to nominate Ellison.

    “Penny Ellison is a good soul because she puts her whole heart into helping others,” she says.

    Davis agrees.

    “To have a good soul requires empathy, I think it requires being humble and genuine,” says Davis “I think the relationship I have with Penny describes all of that.”

    She says Davis has put in work to make their relationship work and she appreciates that.

    “I told Penny her support for me isn’t something that’s going to stop at me,” says Davis, it’s going to be something that I, put back into the universe tenfold.”

    For Ellison, she’s proud to step aside as the leader of Hand2Paw. The non-profit recently hired an executive director to move them into the future. But the work at Hand2Paw is a contribution that Ellison says, is the best part of her life.

    “I get so much more than I give,” she says. “because we are changing the trajectory of lives.”

    For more on Hand2Paw, check them out here:

    If you know someone who has performed an act of kindness, whether it be big or small and you think they serve as an example of compassion, generosity and service, nominate them here:

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