On a long shot, one community rallied to help save hundreds of homeless cats.
Any warm-blooded animal lover knows the importance of spaying and neutering cats — what you may not know is how intensive the logistics are of pulling it off.
In 2016, Ruff Start Rescue in Princeton, Minnesota, a nonprofit that works to help homeless animals find fosters or forever homes, decided to expand their program, which they describe as one of the most important that they run.
This particular initiative is a crucial one for Ruff Start because it prevents even more stray kittens from being born, thereby preventing the homeless cat community from growing even larger.
All images courtesy of Ruff Start Rescue, used with permission.
That's why they decided to seek extra funding to help expand it — and they had their work cut out for them.
Jenna Trisko, the program's development director, had been reaching out to people in her network for new ways to find funds when she came across something different: the State Farm Neighborhood Assist grant.
Unlike Jenna's other grant proposals, the Neighborhood Assist program didn't require an in-person meeting or the approval of a board. State Farm would narrow down the applications to the top 200, then applications would be put to a vote and the decision based on whose community presented the strongest showing.
They kept their fingers crossed, hoping to get the extra funding needed cover the surgeries, which can be expensive.
The existing fundraising they had could only cover a fraction of the surgeries they wanted to provide in order to help keep the homeless cat population under control and healthy.
Jenna had no idea whether Ruff Start would be a strong contender, but she decided to give it a shot, for the love of kitten-kind.
"It was very unlike me to do that," Jenna laughs.
A few months later, she received a notification. Ruff Start was a top contender for a $25,000 grant.
The Neighborhood Assist program that had seemed like a long shot was now within reach. Given the green light by the State Farm team, all that stood between Ruff Start and a $25,000 check was one round of community voting.
It was time to get the Ruff Start community involved.
Ruff Start doesn't have a shelter because all of its animals are placed in foster homes, so the community is tight-knit and full of individuals willing to provide temporarily love to adoptable kitties until they can find permanent homes for them.
This style of animal welfare brings foster families together more closely than at a typical shelter.
"I’ve been with the organization for four years, and many of the people I’ve never met," Jenna says. "But they feel like family. It’s just amazing."
That family came in especially handy when it was time to vote for Ruff Start in the Neighborhood Assist program. They were able to rally the community to participate in the voting every day for three long weeks.
Plus, since no one else in Minnesota was nominated, all of the animal welfare supporters in the state could easily support their cause.
"We reached out to our other partners and got the word out that we needed people voting every day."
This continued for three excruciatingly tense weeks.
"It was the biggest nail-biter ever," Jenna laughs.
Finally, the winners were announced — and Jenna's proposal for Ruff Start was among them.
"I think I cried for two days!" she says.
In all, the Neighborhood Assist program helped Ruff Start spay and neuter over 500 cats.
The program was so popular that Ruff Start spent the entire grant in just five months, less than a third of the time they originally anticipated.
Ruff Start recently received a second grant, which is being used to build a facility to house cats before and after their spay/neuter surgery.
They're now working on building a facility where cats can be temporarily housed post-surgery — a project for which their community helped win another Neighborhood Assist grant.
Volunteers at Ruff Start are also focused on teaching the public things like how to read "cat body language."
Those volunteers design learning materials about animals and their care — such as how to understand their body language, what to feed them, or what do if you find an injured or stray animal — and then, they take them to schools, youth groups, YMCAs, and more.
By extending their mission beyond foster and adoption, Ruff Start can spread knowledge that helps improve the lives of animals that aren't necessarily part of their direct community.
In the end, Neighborhood Assist gave Ruff Start more than just a grant, it gave them a bonding experience.
"It's so touching to see a community come together for an initiative," Jenna says. "I've been writing grants for 11 years. I have never had an opportunity to be part of something like that."
The effort that Ruff Start and the animal welfare community put into winning the grant proved that regular people have the power to do what might, at first, feel impossible.
If you want to find out more about Neighborhood Assist, and how it's helping improve communities across the country, check out the program here.