Student volunteers mark over a decade of service through Animal Welfare Foster Program

Josh Brunermer and his dog Jameson
Josh Brunermer, second-year veterinary student and the current president of the AWFP, with his 2-year-old "foster failure" Jameson, who was rescued by AWFP from a shelter in Mercer County, West Virginia.

Since its creation by four veterinary school students in 2004, the Animal Welfare Foster Program, or AWFP, has rescued over 500 animals from local kill shelters. In 2006, the AWFP officially became a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization and though not affiliated with the university, continues to operate with the help of over 20 mostly student volunteers, serving roles from medical coordinator to foster parent to administrative.

Josh Brunermer, a second-year veterinary student from Mullica Hill, New Jersey, serves as the current president of the AWFP. While working with BARC (Bonding with Animals through Recreation on Campus) his sophomore year as a biochemistry major at Virginia Tech, Brunermer saw an advertisement for the AWFP and after a quick phone call, took over for the then current event coordinator, a role he continued to serve for two years before becoming president.

Brunermer explains that it typically takes a few weeks to a few months to find animals a "forever home," but he and the other volunteers typically have good results during the school year since the program is mainly run by current veterinary students. "It's a nice chance to get hands-on experience with animals," said Brunermer. "You really get to see a warmer side of the community because as soon as there's an animal that needs help, they're like, alright, I want to help."

One of the organization's main goals is to make sure adopted animals never end up back in a shelter. "We have a clause in our adoption papers that if there is any issue or concern, and a foster is at the point where they can no longer keep the animal, they have to contact us and we'll work towards finding a new home for it," said Brunermer. The organization also prioritizes rescuing animals that are in the most danger of being euthanized at local shelters. The AWFP had previously worked solely with Montgomery County, but Andrea Deoudes, a fourth-year veterinary student from Montgomery County, Maryland, who served roles as both the foster home coordinator and intake coordinator, was instrumental in helping the organization expand its connections to shelters in Pulaski County and Mercer County, West Virginia. Deoudes, who has fostered dozens of dogs herself, loves to keep in touch with past adoptive families and finds great joy in finding homes for hard to place dogs.

"I pulled a dog with a limp and we believe she was hit by a car. She was a little tiny terrier," said Deoudes, who is also treasurer of the Class of 2016. "We got some help from a group called [Raising Aid for Dogs at Risk, or RADAR], and they gave us $300 to potentially amputate her leg, but her other hip wasn't stable enough to do so. We thought she'd be difficult to adopt, but just recently, she got adopted by an older, retired couple who are willing to pay for any surgeries she might need in the future."

A rewarding experience

The Animal Welfare Foster Program brought some of their adoptable dogs to the college's 2014 Open House and shared information about their rescue work.

Like Deoudes, Katie Gagliardo, a fourth-year veterinary student from Takoma Park, Maryland, finds working with rescue dogs to be a worthwhile experience. "It's so rewarding to see these dogs become these great family pets who love people," said Gagliardo, who also volunteers with her dog, Folsom, for Virginia Tech Helping PAWS. "It adapts them to a home life, so they're more adoptable."

Brunermer agrees. "We had an older beagle last semester during Open House that someone was interested in adopting," he explained. "The person came and checked out the dog and the first thing she did was kneel down and the dog jumped up in her arms and was licking her face. A lot of times you don't have that immediate connection, but they were made for each other right away, which was great to see." Gagliardo started at AWFP as a volunteer and then took over the role of medical coordinator, working over 10 hours per week for the program in addition to her duties as a student. Gagliardo, who now specializes in pit bull rescue with her work for Virginia Paws for Pits, said that rescue work "renews [her] passion for veterinary medicine." Last summer, her work with pit bulls was featured on the front page of the Roanoke Times.

The others clearly agree as all three are self-proclaimed "foster fails," or foster parents who have adopted one or more of their foster animals. Brunermer adopted a two-year-old mutt named Jameson, Gagliardo has a pit bull rescue named Folsom, and Deoudes kept General, one of the first puppies she fostered, and later Sergeant. They also emphasize that AWFP is always looking for new volunteers, especially foster parents, as the number of individuals in that role directly affects the number of dogs they can save.

Plus, Brunermer explained, "for every dog we save, we really save two lives since another dog can now take that one's spot." And wherever their paths in veterinary medicine may take them, Brunermer, Deoudes, and Gagliardo know that animal rescue will always be an invaluable part of their lives.

Veterinary students (l-r) Andrea Deoudes, AWFP volunteer, Michelle McDonald, AWFP adoption coordinator, and Katie Gagliardo, AWFP volunteer, with their dogs (l-r) General, Sergeant, Lacie, and Folsom.