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Virginia SPCA thrift shop falls victim to COVID-19

Special to the Journal Stacy Leach and Alisha Piper of the SPCA.

WINCHESTER, Va. — The SPCA of Winchester, Frederick and Clarke counties has served its community since 1907 and strives to safeguard animals in transition. In addition to strengthening the human-animal bond, it also serves as a public shelter for the city of Winchester and a private shelter for Frederick and Clarke counties.

The organization has endured enormous changes since the COVID-19 pandemic began, most notably cutting its staff from 25 to 12, and because of that, the nonprofit has been forced to change its business model to reduce expenses.

Executive Director Lavenda Denney said recently that when the changes first started coming, she knew it would get worse. She initially thought the hardest thing would be canceling their events but that proved to be easy compared with closing the shelter to the public, which she described as “really hard.”

Before the pandemic, Denney said they were in the process of planning new community programs, but those funds had to be used to pay bills.

“We were so excited for what the SPCA could be besides a shelter,” she said, “And it’s heartbreaking to see the funds that would have been used for new plans go to something else. It just pays the bills.”

Denney said it’s also been hard having to lay off those who helped the SPCA, and the outbreak, thus far, has been the “hardest crisis I’ve had to navigate,” she said.

The shelter is currently operating at a 97 percent save rate and received the designation of being a no-kill facility since 2014. Denney said to be designated as a no-kill facility, an animal shelter must save at least 90 percent of the animals in their care and never euthanize for lack of space.

The SPCA is committed to reducing the unwanted pet population in Virginia, Denney said. All of the animals adopted through their shelter are vaccinated, microchipped and spayed/neutered before being adopted.

In 2019, the SPCA provided services to 1,193 homeless pets including 724 cats, 435 dogs, and 30 other types of small domestic animals. In addition to providing those services, the organization also provided food assistance for more than 1,000 pets from about 365 families via its food pantry. Denney also added that more than 250 owned pets were spayed/neutered and vaccinated through the SPCA’s partnership with a low-cost veterinary clinic.

Denney said despite the current challenges, the organization’s pet food pantry is still operating, with volunteers making drop-offs to families in need of pet supplies or food.

She then went on to explain that the SPCA partners with local businesses, schools, and civic groups for a variety of projects like adoption events, donation drives and humane education. The organization relies on a strong volunteer force and more than 100 people regularly volunteer to walk dogs and socialize cats. The SPCA has 50 trained volunteers that represent the agency in the community.

“I feel we do a lot of work for the community,” said Colleen Mahoney, lead animal care associate. “We try to educate [the public] and care for animals and their well-being. Most of our income is through our thrift store and because business slowed down drastically, there have been a lot of cutbacks. We’re still trying to get the animals homes. It’s tough, but we’re still here, we’re still taking care of the animals.”

The shelter normally relies on the thrift shop for funding and every cent generated in the 10,000-square-foot facility typically goes to help homeless animals.

“Every day, the thrift shop normally generates $1,000 for the animal shelter,” Denney noted. “This adds up to about $150,000 annually. Due to the regulations and guidelines set forth by the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, and the Governor of Virginia, the thrift shop had to close.”

She added that the group tried to keep business going by offering a shop-by-appointment system and selling things online, but those attempts didn’t generate enough funds to keep the lights on. Eventually, the thrift shop had to close completely and all employees had to be laid off. At the same time, the adoption center, which also generated much-needed funds, had to close and move to an adoption-by-appointment model.

Denney said because of this, the agency has seen half the adoptions it would normally see and it’s also earned only half of the program’s income, resulting in a loss of $500 per day.

“The agency was forced to lay off the majority of its customer service personnel,” Denney explained. “Spay/Neuter services also had to be shut down. If the COVID-19 restrictions go through the end of April, the SPCA of Winchester will have lost $58,000 in revenue.”

With all of these changes, the shelter’s revenue for March has decreased by $20,500 and Denney expects a loss of $37,500 In April.

The SPCA Thrift Shop still has eBay and Poshmark stores, but it’s anxious to reopen its brick and mortar location. Denney called the thrift store the “lifeblood” of the SPCA.

“Operating adoption by appointment is not the best business model for our adoption center and we will reopen our doors as soon as it’s safe,” Denney said.

She said the shelter is struggling to locate the basic supplies necessary to operate the SPCA, like bleach, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer. Mahoney said there are less animals in the shelter currently than they are used to as well.

“In our community, we’re the only no-kill shelter,” Denney said. “Without the shelter, there’s nowhere for stray animals to go, which could result in a public safety issue.”

Mahoney, meanwhile, said that the SPCA is still accepting strays and surrenders by appointment and she reiterated that anyone can come in to adopt by making an appointment.

“It’s important that everyone knows we’re still here, taking care of animals and for much as the community is hurting, we’re still trying to help,” Mahoney said. “We’re still able to find animals some homes and we’re still getting donations. Everyone’s being very understanding and we’re trying to work the best we can, given the circumstances.”

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