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A lesson in compassion and responsibility

Apr 11, 2023

Transition Town students volunteer at no-kill animal shelter

For some, Monday mornings roll around much too quickly. But not 22-year-old Jose. Mondays are the days he goes to NAWS Humane Society in Mokena to care for the cats and cuddle with the kittens. 


“These cats deserve love, respect, care and attention,” said Jose, a participant in the vocational training programs at St. Coletta’s of Illinois. “All animals are special.” 

 Once a week, teachers Jaqueline DeMarco and Leslie Chowaniec take eight students to the no-kill shelter to clean cages, freshen kitty litter and make sure the water dishes and food dishes are full. 


It’s part of St. Coletta’s transitional training program, which enables students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to explore various career opportunities and develop skills that will be useful after graduation. 


DeMarco initiated the weekly trips to NAWS in January after Jose expressed an interest in working with animals. 


“He’s really into animals,” she said. “He reads a lot and is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to all animals.”


About 20 students volunteer at the shelter each month on a rotating schedule. DeMarco and Chowaniec work alongside the students, reminding them of each task they need to complete. 


“If there’s dry, crusty food in the dish, wipe it out,” DeMarco tells them. “We don’t want to clog the plumbing system when we wash all those dishes.”


Students work in pairs, talking to the animals as they work. 


“If I could have a pet, you would be the one,” Victoria tells a blue-eyed kitten named Misty.  


“She reminds me of my old cat,” she explains. “I would love her and hug her.” 


The volunteer work has led to discussions about pet adoption, responsibilities of pet owners and why people relinquish their family pets to NAWS. 


“It’s sad to see a 15-year-old cat there,” said DeMarco, using the abandoned, senior cat as an opportunity to emphasize the commitment and long-term care required when adopting a new pet. 


“Don’t get one because it’s cute and then get rid of it a year later,” she tells students. 


Based in Tinley Park, St. Coletta’s of Illinois serves children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities from the south, southwest and western suburbs.  


Its therapeutic day school serves children ages 3-21 while its Community Day Services program works with adults, building adaptive learning skills, economic self-sufficiency, independence and integration into the community. 


Both programs are open to new client and student referrals. 


When students turn 14, they have an opportunity to participate in St. Coletta’s career exploration program called Transition Town. In Transition Town, students receive hands-on learning in business services, baking and culinary arts, janitorial training, laundry services, retail services, and central purchase programming. 


Several area businesses, including NAWS, Tinley Bowl and St. Vincent DePaul Thrift Store, welcome students on a regular basis to receive training in a real work environment. 


At the bowling alley, students refine their custodial skills. At the thrift store, they learn to sort and organize items for display. 


Before students could begin their volunteer work at NAWS, DeMarco had to undergo some special training at the shelter to learn their protocols. 


“There are many steps to remember,” she said, “and some are very unglamorous.” 


Despite the unglamorous side of caring for animals, students say the good outweighs the bad. 


“We get to cuddle the cats that want to be loved,” said one. “We get to see who’s adopted and who the newbies are,” said another. 

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