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Twenty & Counting

friends forever

may have been created to raise muchneeded awareness and funding for Nebraska Humane Society programming but, the working board is an army of women and they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, literally.
 


 

Friends Forever does many things for abandoned animals in our community including; introducing shelter dogs to prospective adoptive families at The Bookworm every Thursday, serving as guides for school tours of the Nebraska Humane Society four-building facility, rescuing stray dogs and writing to judges presiding over animal cruelty cases, to name just a few.
 

“Their reach is far-extending and just ripples throughout the community and beyond”, says Judy Varner, President of the Nebraska Humane Society.
 

The Nebraska Humane Society is a very rewarding and fun place to work, acknowledges Pam Swisher, Vice President of NHS Foundation, but it can also be a very difficult place as well. The state of some animals in its [NHS] care is heart wrenching. Cases of abuse and simple neglect that are all too common can wear on the staff. “The Friends Forever ladies are very attentive to the staff, they nurture the humans as well as the animals here.” Swisher states.
 

We take for granted Omaha’s exemplary humane society. But the humane society of yesterday is a mere shadow of today’s organization. Varner attributes the NHS’ growth in large part, to the Friends Forever guild, which marks its twentieth anniversary this year.
 

The guild began in 1992 when Judie Olson made a conscious decision to evoke change. “She saw the condition of the building, which was not good, and saw the conditions of the animals, also not good,” Varner explains. “And she forced people to look at an uncomfortable situation.”
 

“they nurture the humans as well as the animals here.”

~ PAM SWISHER, VICE PRESIDENT OF NHS FOUNDATION
 

The Nebraska Humane Society is the oldest humane society in the state and the fifth oldest in the nation. It is also one of the largest in the country, servicing over 25,000 animals with a budget of almost 10 million dollars, a staff of 140 and a four-building campus. Yet, “it wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen in the city of Omaha twenty years ago,” asserts Judie Olson, founder of Friends Forever. The prevailing feeling at the NHS at this time was that people might open their hearts to animals but not their wallets. Olson thought otherwise, she worked at the zoo and knew firsthand that people gave to causes that catered to animals.
 

Olson, along with fellow founding members Barbara Thompson and Sandy Crawford, carefully selected 62 volunteers who fulfilled three criteria: 1) Be an animal lover; 2) Possess volunteer skills, like fundraising experience; and 3) Have access to contacts or products that would help the animals at the NHS.
 

Olson had gathered what she called “a small army of women determined to put the countless number of homeless animals on the radar screen.” The group had a purpose; now it needed a name, an identity, this Olson’s husband supplied. They were talking one afternoon about pets and the unconditional love they provide. Her husband pointed out that when you share your life with a pet, it is your friend forever. Thus the name Friends Forever was born.
 

“their reach is far-extending and just ripples throughout the community and beyond.”

~ JUDY VARNER, PRESIDENT OF THE NEBRASKA HUMANE SOCIETY
 

“We hit the ground running,” recalls Olson. The group’s first benefit was the Cattail Buffet, a cocktail party designed to coincide with the national touring company’s production of CATS in 1992.
 

A year later Friends Forever created one of its most notable contributions to the NHS: Pet Adoption on Wheels, or PAWS. “We knew many people who were not adopting animals through a shelter,” says Olson. Most prospective pet owners acquired their furry friends through breeders, kennels, or pet stores. “We needed a mobile adoption vehicle to create awareness of shelter dogs”, she continues. “We needed to bring the animals to the people because the people were not coming to the shelter.”
 

Friends Forever sought corporate sponsorship for the vehicle and then raised money to outfit the van with individual kennels for the adoption candidates. Then the ladies hit the road. They drove the PAWS van to Bakers’s and PetSmart parking lots, visited big events like Kids Explore and, they were staples at parades and community gatherings. PAWS provided the initial introduction, the “love at first sight” moment. Once the paper work was started, adoptive pet owners then had to complete the process at the Humane Society headquarters.
 

PAWS is also a rescue vehicle. It traveled to New Orleans after the wake of hurricane Katrina to bring back stray dogs and cats. Five years ago it rescued 200 dogs from a puppy mill in Lexington, NE. Last year, when tornadoes flattened Joplin, MO, PAWS helped to reunite pet owners with their animals. As Varner says, “it goes where it is needed.”
 

Personal passion for animals fuels Olson and the other members of the Friends Forever guild. Olson has lost count of the number of pets she has had over the years. “God only knows,” she laughs. She remembers her very first though, a cocker spaniel named Skippy who would console her when her parents were being “unfair.” Since then, Olson has fostered hundreds of animals, adopting out all of her temporary “house guest”. “They never go back to the Humane Society,” she confesses.
 

Friends Forever is unique to the Nebraska Humane Society. It is the only one of its kind in the country, and humane societies in other states often solicit Olson’s advice on how to establish similar guilds. Varner is the first to acknowledge that, without Friends Forever, the NHS would never have grown to what is has become. Over the last twenty years, the guild has raised over 2 million dollars that is channeled directly to animal welfare programs.
 

“we knew many people who were not adopting animals through a shelter.”

~ JUDIE OLSON, FOUNDER: FRIENDS FOREVER
 

Every two years the guild hosts a Dining with Dogs fundraiser to which guests bring their dogs. During the cocktail hour, pets are treated to hors d’oeuvres from Three Dog Bakery. By the time dinner for their two-legged companions is served, they are sated and sleeping soundly around the table. “You’d never even know there are dogs at the dinner,” Varner chuckles.
 

The bi-annual Black Tie and Tails raises both funds and awareness for the level of care animals provide their human counterparts. Each year a service animal is honored. Casper, a German Shepard trained to detect drugs for the Nebraska State Patrol, was the most recent honoree at this event. In the Past the horses that serve the Omaha Police’s mounted patrol have been showcased along with personal service dogs as past honorees. For example, a black lab was trained to detect when his young owner was about to have a seizure. The dog attended school with the boy, when he sensed a seizure coming on, the lab would alert the teacher.
 

During Vaner’s fifteen year tenure at NHS, she has witnessed the power a single group of people can yield in the name of animals. Varner says, “they [Friends Forever] are partners in our [NHS] journey. They care deeply about fair treatment for animals.”
 

“they are partners in our [NHS] journey. They care deeply about fair treatment for animals.”

~ JUDY VARNER
 

For more information about the Nebraska Humane Society and the Friends Forever guild, visit www.nehumanesociety.org.