In 2003, Karen Gerth founded a nonprofit that puts dogs to work as therapists.
Since then, the popularity of the service has exploded and today KPETS — Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services — has some 400 registered volunteers who bring their pets to hospitals and nursing homes to help provide comfort and rehabilitation.
In the 14 years since she started the organization, Gerth herself has gone from an unpaid volunteer to an officially part-time executive director who actually works full time — without benefits — in what she still calls a “labor of love.”
But today, the 62-year-old Akron resident is thinking about the next steps for the organization as she contemplates a larger office and a first full-time employee.
“We’ve been around all this time, but it’s time for a big change, a big leap,” Gerth said.
And while Gerth expects to stay involved, she plans to step out of some of the day-to-day aspects of screening volunteers, raising money and promoting the organization.
KPETS, which has an annual budget around $125,000, now operates with three part-time employees in a small office at 630 Janet Ave.
In August, it plans to move to larger space in the Emerald Community Campus at 2120 Oregon Pike, the former Jewish Community Center.
SCORE recently honored KPETS with one of its 2017 Small Business Awards.
How did it all get started?
I took the knowledge that I had from registering my dogs with two national (pet therapy) organizations and came up with the process that we go through.
I researched becoming incorporated, went to SCORE and talked about how do I get my (nonprofit status). We pretty much pulled that all together and formed KPETS so we could help more volunteers get registered.
What did you do differently?
The thing that the national organizations didn’t do was connect the volunteers with the needs. There could be a retirement community out there that really wants dogs to come visit, but they don’t really know how to find a volunteer.
And volunteers would get registered, then it would be “Hey, you’re registered. Have a good time.” They didn’t know where to go.
Did you have another job in the beginning?
I worked at Brethren Village in the IT department. I was younger then. I had more energy. There were times I would just tell people, “I’m too dumb to quit. I’m too dumb to give up.” But I’d get frustrated because I didn’t know how to do all that paperwork.
There’s so much more I want to see happening, and I know I don’t have the skills. I tell people I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants since we started.
Why do you want to hire a full-time person instead of expanding your role?
I’m at the age where I don’t want to go out and take leadership training and all that kind of stuff.
I know my weaknesses and there’s so much more I want to do that I can’t do when I’m sitting in here taking care of accounting, or working on the IT stuff.
It’s amazing I am where I am. I’m pretty much an introvert and very insecure and I was brought up Mennonite, so the whole “Be Humble” stuff. I feel like when I’m out there — I don’t want to say boasting — promoting KPETS, it’s just not me. So I need someone who’s not afraid to go and do that.
What would your role be after someone new is hired?
I don’t want to be a pain, but I may be. I want to work more on the program, training our volunteers to show them that their dogs can do a whole lot more.
I can’t imagine (stepping away). I’ll always be taking my dogs somewhere. And I like going out somewhere and showing with volunteers how they can use their dogs because there’s so much more than going into a nursing home and say, “Hi. Do you want to pet my dogs?”
Do organizations pay for the pet visits?
There is no fee. Lots of times if we do a one-time presentation, they’ll send us some money. But a lot of the places we go to are also nonprofits.
Another thing that SCORE advises us is, “You’ve got to get money from the people you visit.”
We’re spread thin. We have a form, where, when they fill out that request, we ask, “Can we contact you for donations?” And that’s one of the things we need to follow up on, but we just don’t have the staffing to get to that.
So where do you get funding?
Extraordinary Give — thank you Extraordinary Give — certain corporate sponsors, private donations.
The volunteers pay $35 a year to have insurance for their dogs. It’s good income, when it’s 400 times 35 dollars, but that’s not going to cover a full-time executive director to come in.