Jen Rogers’ love for animals generates nonprofit offering assistance and canine caregivers for people in need
By Cecile S. Holmes
The two sandy-haired boys stood almost tongue-tied outside Jen Rogers’ office at PAALS Inc. They had a contribution for PAALS, Rogers’ creative blending of animals needing homes with people needing help. How the boys – fraternal twins Braden and Ryan Young– raised the money is a story in itself.
Everyone in the twins’ fifth grade class at the Center for Inquiry on Summit Parkway in Richland School District 2 decided to do a service project. The Youngs had attended Summer PAALS, a day camp that integrates assistance-dogs-in training with youngsters. So the boys picked PAALS to receive their largesse. But how did they raise the $157 they donated this sunny afternoon? Stress balls. Made from balloons filled with sand, twisted closed and decorated with perky, perplexed and sometimes smiling faces, the balls sold for $5 apiece. Soon the twins turned a profit for PAALS.
Rogers, in keeping with her go-with-the-flow approach, quickly put her stress ball – a gift, no contribution required--to use. She mashed it into a pancake and then rounded it back into a ball. “You guys definitely qualify for some puppy time,” she told the boys. Delighted, they skipped off, following a PAALS staff member to play with some pups-in-training. “They’re not done,” their mom, Christine Young, confided. “They’re going to do a fundraiser at their school.”
Exciting young people like the twins keeps Rogers going. So does her faith, her family and her confidence that founding PAALS and being its executive director is something she was meant to do. On route, she moved to Columbia to work at Riverbanks Zoo, met her husband, Chuck Rogers, in a YMCA spinning class, joined Northeast United Methodist Church where she’s a lay leader and adopted three children from Uganda. The children –Joshua, Moreen and Marvin – came into her and her husband’s lives about five years ago after friends, home from a mission trip to Uganda, told them of Uganda’s many orphans and their desperate need for parents.
Along with her two stepdaughters, Rogers said, the children have enriched her life. The Ugandan brood are “the truest form of ‘blooming wherever God plants you,’ ” she said. “My faith is stronger than ever because this journey was started in church, our church family has surrounded our family with love throughout, and prayers powered us through the challenges --and continue to.”
Born in Bayonne, N.J., near New York City, Rogers moved to Howell, N.J. when she was about 8 years old. “When I was a preteen, I saw a TV show about children with autism being helped by poolside dolphins. It really caught my attention,” she said. She started thinking maybe she could use her love for animals to help people.
“Something about it struck a chord with me. I already knew about my passion for animals. But it was the first time I also thought about my passion for helping people. For me, it was a way to combine those two. So that’s how I ended up a marine mammal trainer.”
Before and while earning a degree in biology from Rutgers University, Rogers sought internship-after-internship. Mystic, the same Connecticut town that gave viewers the film, “Mystic Pizza,” gave Rogers her start. She cared for and trained bottlenose dolphins, beluga whales and Steller’s sea lions. “I got an enormous amount of experience with training and caring for animals,” she said. “But I also volunteered to help when the Make-A-Wish Foundation kids came in. Everyone else shied away. But I felt that -- even though it was sad that I couldn’t fix the problem -- it was wonderful to be part of that joy for the kids.”
With those kids, Rogers learned important lessons. “It showed me that when you have different abilities – whether you have a terminal illness or a physical disability – for some of the kids it was multiple things, the animals didn’t shun these people. They (the animals) just are better at it than we are. They’re able to take those things in stride. That is so powerful for people.”
Over the next few years Rogers did a hip-hop dance from region-to-region. She spent five years in Mystic. From there she went to the Denver Zoo where she developed scripts and show themes, cared for a cross section of animal species and met her match in a Eurasian Eagle Owl. She was working with animals from foxes to dwarf zebras. The owl proved a special case.
“I was really afraid,” Rogers said. “It’s the largest owl in the world. My boss put on a falcon glove, went in and tried to pick this bird up. It dove at his glove and tried to attack it over and over again. I thought I might pass out watching.”
Then she paused, thinking she of new ways to deal with the owl.
“I made it my personal goal to change the game with that bird. I couldn’t handle that kind of behavior and because I felt sorry for the bird. He was doing that because he was really upset. Why was he upset? Those were my thought processes.
“What else could we give to the bird? I did some crazy kinds of things. I took rolls of paper towels, the kind that don’t break apart, that brown kind and I put it all over the owl’s enclosure. I put food items in the enclosure. I put things in a cone like you give a dog. So I had different things the owl could choose to interact with.”
Her colleagues thought she had a screw loose. But Rogers was elated to return one morning to find that the owl had disheveled it all and moved things around.
The experience added one more microchip to her data bank on behavioral training with animals, and on bringing animals and people together. Later when she worked at Boston’s Zoo New England she created and ran programs for at-risk youth to work with zoo animals. In PAALS, which stands for Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services, she created the nonprofit she’d dreamed of.
PAALS’ programs are multiple, including placing fully trained service animals with disabled adults and children. One dog even went to a physical therapist who uses it in her practice. Some dogs not quite suited to being service dogs go into other types of programs including Pets With a Purpose. Then there are the summer camps, and PAALS fundraisers of all sorts to help connect the right animals to the right people.
To get going, Rogers took an online course in starting a nonprofit and spent several months training at the National Education for Assistance Dog Services in Massachusetts. Rogers had planned that PAALS, begun in 2007, would train dogs to work with people with special needs from autistic children to disabled adults. She also hoped to bring at-risk youth into the training process through the Department of Juvenile Justice. But then came the economic downturn and DOJJ money dried up. She worried she’d made the wrong choice. Her husband refused to believe it.
Chuck Rogers, she said, is “an expert in talking me off the ledge.” He suggested several short-term solutions and gave other advice. She credits him and a rescue puppy, Rosie who was found by her stepdaughters and is now about 11 years old, as her PAALS co-founders.
Rogers’ greatest strength is, according to her husband, “her incredible capacity for love” for people and animals. “She loves all animals. She really loves dogs. There’s not much that makes Jen happier than finding a way to help an animal she loves help a person she loves.”