In 2013, Steven Washington went to the Baltimore Animal and Care Shelter (BARCS) to adopt a four-legged companion. He found one — and also found a new volunteer mission helping find homes for dogs and cats.
For the past eight years, the Nottingham resident has taken on several roles, from greeting visitors to nurturing animals to help reduce their stress during their stay at the shelter.
Washington, 60,who retired after a marketing career, had visited animal shelters across the region before heading to BARCS after a friend recommended the shelter. Washington says he admired the way the staff took the time to match him with a dog that would be best suited for him. That’s when he came across a one-year-old mixed pit bull who he later named Spike.
On the day of adoption, Washington had two papers placed in front of him, one to finalize the adoption of his new dog and the other to become a volunteer at BARCS.
“When I was walking through [the shelter] something in my heart and spirit was tugging at me to help these animals,” Washington said.
BARCS takes in cats and dogs that are either stray or being surrendered by their owners. In 2020, the shelter took in 7,000 cats and dogs, as well as, 700 exotic and farm animals.
Its mission has been to keep animals alive. The shelter has increased their live-release rate — the percentage of animals adopted or returned to their owners instead of being euthanized — from 2% in 2004 to more than 90% in 2018, according to their website.
In May, BARCS moved from their original location on Stockholm Street, near M&T Bank Stadium, to Giles Road in Cherry Hill to have more space. All of their animals had to be either adopted or fostered before the move. As the transition took place during the COVID pandemic, BARCS had to cut its staff of 70 to about 35 members to care for 56 dogs, 56 cats, five fish, one raccoon and one bat.
“I was afraid the organization was going to get flooded [during COVID] with animal surrenders but it didn’t turn out that way,” Washington said. " We haven’t been to full capacity.”
Matt Fazzino, assistant director of animal care at BARCS, credits volunteers like Washington for finding pets a forever home.
“Steve knows the dogs really well and has been [placing] the dogs really well,” Fazzino said. “Besides helping with applications and matchmaking, he comes in and does everything enthusiastically and sincerely.”
Washington says being able to help get dogs adopted is the highlight of volunteering at BARCS.
“Like people, dogs need mental and physical stimulation,” Washington said. “Animals who are living in a shelter experience high levels of stress because they may not be getting the same amount of exercise and attention compared to dogs in a home.”
Fazzino says that BARCS offers homeless, abused and neglected animals a second chance and in some cases, a third, fourth or fifth chance.
“We see dogs that are more stressed,” Fazzino said. “We take the time to help out as much as possible to make sure they’re getting the best treatment and making sure their stay is easy.”
For instance, in October, BARCS welcomed a dog named Barak that was temporarily displaced after a gas explosion in Northwest Baltimore.
“Steve had a special bond with Barak ,” Fazzino said. “When Barak would come out to play, he would always curl up on Big Steve’s lap.”
Fazzino explained that Washington was given the nickname “Big Steve” because he’s tall, but also has a big heart.
Washington suggests there are ways to help ease the tension of an animal, such as giving dog treats or taking extra long walks. Giving additional attention is a tactic Washington used with Barak before he was reunited with his owner.
“In the beginning, Barak would constantly bark,” Washington said. “When I would come out, I would spend extra time with Barak.”
Washington says being at BARCS helps put his life into perspective.
“I’ll totally forget all of the things that were bothering me earlier in the day,” Washington said.
Hannah Geiger, a training coordinator at BARCS, says Washington has made a lasting impact on her.
“Steve puts me back in a good place and always brightens my day,” Geiger said. “He is valued here.”