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A Helping Hand In Paw

08.17.2007 by AndrĂ© Natta · → 1 Comment

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Hand In Paw’s (HIP) seventh annual “Picasso Pets” is not your average art show. This year, 18 local dogs and 2 cats have taken time out of their busy romping and napping schedules to become collaborative artists with some of the finest painters in Birmingham. Using their paws, tails, and-in the case of one very mellow longhaired dachshund-their whole bodies, these treasured pets are doing their best to help raise money for the therapy programs HIP has pioneered in Birmingham. The roster of human artists (which reads like a “Who’s who” in Alabama art) work with the marks made by the pets to develop surprisingly sophisticated landscapes, Warhol-esque portraits, and not-so traditional folk art paintings.

Since 1996, the Birmingham-based group HIP has made sure that people in need will always have a furry friend nearby. HIP has spent the last decade pairing “Pet Partner” teams of human volunteers and their beloved pets with various social services, hospitals and shelters. When you think about how much unconditional love the average family dog radiates, it becomes easy to imagine how much solace a troubled child or lonely senior might find in an interaction with a friendly pet.

But like all good things, Hand-In-Paw needs lots of resources to do their work. A recent trip to HIP’s offices on 7th Avenue South revealed an office in full charity-gala preparation mode.

Volunteers prepared gift baskets for the silent auction, tied together backstage “pawses” for the artists, and discussed their favorite paintings up for auction. Yet what marked the difference for this particular art auction in Birmingham was the presence of an artist snoozing on the floor of the office, amid squeaky toys and blankets.

The completed works will be auctioned off on Saturday, August 18th, at the Cahaba Grand. HIP’s Elizabeth Drennen, Director of Special Events, calls Picasso Pets “the least stuffy charity gala you’ll ever go to.” The program includes not only the live and silent auctions, but an animal artist “debut,” a parade of Pet Partner teams, costumed volunteers, dinner and a signature “Pawtini” cocktail. Drennen promises the event “is definitely going to be the cat’s meow.”

With over one-third of its operating budget coming from this event’s proceeds, Hand-In-Paw needs to meet or surpass the lofty expectations coming out of last year’s highly successful auction. “We’re aiming to make $275,000 from the event this year,” says Drennan, adding that several of the paintings have begun to generate quite a bit of friendly competition already.

A partnership with the Birmingham Museum of Art has given a temporary home to some of the pets’ paintings until the event. An HIP-themed scavenger hunt at last month’s Art on the Rocks event started the buzz about Picasso Pets and the competition. Several of the paintings on display, particularly audience favorite “It’s All About Me” by Sweet P. Rodgers and human Muse Bob McKenna, should be hot items at the live auction.

Expectations are high for the auction this year because of the programs at stake. HIP is especially proud of two programs that have seen dramatic results: the “Sit, Stay, Read” program and “Pawsitive Living.” In Sit, Stay, Read, a Pet Partner team of HIP-trained animal and owner work with reluctant young readers in after school programs. The children are encouraged to read out loud to their new four-legged friends. Teachers involved in the program have noted that the calming influence of a nonjudgmental pal has notably raised reading scores among their students.

“Pawsitive Living” is a twelve-week program that works with at-risk youth in the community. Through interactions with volunteer animals, children and teens find an unconditional relationship in which to practice anger management, get confidence, and learn compassion. Aide workers have commended the program for the tolerance and patience the animals teach their human friends.

These are only two of the many programs HIP maintains.

Jane Ehrhardt, director of communications, takes these successes seriously. “[At Hand-In-Paw] those we serve are disconnected from the human race and their community somehow. We bring them back into the community through that rare connection you have with an animal-because an animal has no judgment. When you have someone going through pain, and all they want is just to be loved, there’s that connection.” What starts with a connection with the animal slowly becomes a connection to the person holding the leash-and to the world again.

Ehrhardt’s voice grows determined as she talks about HIP’s mission. “We’re helping people find the better parts of themselves through the animals.”

The satisfaction comes with a host of financial worries, including the cost of training the volunteer animal-and-owner teams, insurance, bonding and licensing-all operating costs covered by the proceeds from the Picasso Pets auction. In Drennan’s words, the bottom line for HIP’s intrepid directors and volunteers is this: “No matter what your favorite charity is, we probably serve that charity in some capacity. If you want someone to feel comforted by an animal’s love, help us.”

Hand-In-Paw’s Picasso Pets takes place tomorrow evening, August 18th from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., at The Cahaba Grand. Tickets are $150 per person, and sponsorship tables are available. Call 205.322.5144 or visit http://www.handinpaw.org for tickets, information about volunteering or donations.

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Filed under: alabama · birmingham · events

Julie Smithson
Julie Smithson

What a great article! Thanks for the information about this worthy charity.