Yam had a big moment in the play yard for dogs at the La Plata County Humane Society a couple of weeks ago: The shy dog, who usually scurries from strangers, allowed Autumn Tucson’s adviser at Big Picture High School to come up and pet him.
“I was so excited to see that,” Tucson said. “That was a very big moment for him whether he knows it or not. I’m proud of him. Since he first came here, it’s so amazing to see how much he’s come out of his shell.”
Tucson, 18, who lives north of Durango, has been interning at the Humane Society for almost four years now, since her freshman year at Big Picture.
Initially, the volunteer internship was set to be for only 60 hours during her freshman year, but, in August, she will have spent four years interning at the Humane Society.
On April 2, the Colorado Department of Education’s Individual Career and Academic Plan recognized 1,100 hours of internship duty Tucson has served at the Humane Society, awarding her a 2021 ICAP Student Award. It was the first individual student award ever given by ICAP.
During her initial internship, Tucson discovered a second home at the Humane Society – helping organize and pull off fundraisers for the nonprofit, cleaning the kennels and eventually working with the dogs and cats.
She helps in the play yard with new dogs to see how they do with other dogs, and watches dogs when they are let out to play, exercise and do their duty in two dog runs along the side of the building.
Eventually, Tucson – who like Yam admits to being shy and a bit of an introvert – even amassed the courage to work the Human Society’s front desk.
“The hardest thing for me has been dealing with people, answering phones. Working the front desk pulled me out of my comfort zone. It was terrifying in the beginning,” she said. “But after two weeks, I figured out the rhythm of the desk, and I’m a better communicator, too.”
Chelsea Reinsch, Tucson’s senior adviser at Big Picture High School, said internships are a vital part of Big Picture’s curriculum – allowing students to identify career goals and helping students and their teachers and counselors identify educational goals.
“Even before a student starts an internship, we begin the process by identifying their interests and passions,” Reinsch said. “It’s important to identify the right internship possibilities for a student.”
Also, before an internship begins, Reinsch said counselors and teachers work with students to explore various career possibilities and to build and improve communication and interview skills.
Internships help students develop good work skills, they learn to work as part of a team, to respect the views of others, to problem-solve, to follow directions and to speak up for themselves when needed in a professional work environment.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of internships, Reinsch said, is they give a student actual experience in the workplace, a professional environment in an area they’ve identified as something that interests them.
An internship can confirm a student’s interest in a profession or show them that they might have incorrectly identified a career path and they should reassess the career pathways they are exploring.
Tucson’s first internship was at The Juniper School, and she discovered her idea of entering elementary education wasn’t right for her.
“I realized elementary-age kids weren’t my passion. They’re really high-energy. It was too much for me,” she said. “I realized I like being with animals. They’re more my speed. I think they help keep me sane.”
Ken Hibbard, the Humane Society’s outreach coordinator, said close to 60 students have served internships at the Humane Society since it began offering them eight years ago.
Before internships start, Hibbard said, an interview is conducted with the interested student to let them learn about the shelter, its mission, safety practices and what an intern’s work will entail.
It’s important for the student and the shelter to both feel comfortable going forward, Hibbard said.
When a student is right for the Humane Society, the benefits are immense for everyone, he said.
“One of the biggest positives I’ve found, when an internship is right, it empowers kids to bring their energy here, and the dogs respond,” he said. “Not all kids have an understanding, or I’ll call it the juju, like Autumn.”
Interns are gradually given more responsibilities as they prove they are reliable, they show up on time, follow directions and are safety-conscious.
Eventually, the most adept interns are taught dog behavior, body language for safe handling practices and are allowed to interact with the dogs.
Hibbard said: “Safety is a big stress for us: We tell the kids, ‘The dogs are not here of their own doing. If you want a dog to follow you, you need to gain their trust, build their respect.’ Once kids get that, they’re awesome with the dogs.”
Yam is still shy around people. Tucson is the only person he allows to touch him in the kennel.
Tucson has been fostering Yam at home, working with him for 2½ months to get him more at ease around people. Now, she’s looking to see if her mother will allow her to adopt him.
In fall, she plans to attend Fort Lewis College. She is examining majoring in criminology and minoring in business.
For a career, she’s exploring entering law enforcement. She would like to be a K-9 handler.
When the school year ends, she plans to volunteer at the Humane Society.
“I won’t be doing it for me,” she said. “I know the dogs are homeless, and they don’t have the love my dogs have at home. Just a 5- or 10-minute walk helps them feel a little better, and it warms my heart to know I’m helping them in some way.”