Unlikely kitten rescue spurs career at Action for Animals Humane Society in Derry
Kathy Newill didn't know what to do when she found a kitten in a dumpster behind a Pizza Hut.
It was 1994. Newill was 24 and had just finished her lunch break.
“I knew I couldn't leave it there,” she said.
She asked around until she heard about Action For Animals Humane Society in Derry Township.
Thanks to the humane society, the kitten found a home, and Newill found a calling.
“I decided that I wanted to do something to give back. My father taught me that at a young age,” she said.
Her role with Action For Animals started small, walking dogs and socializing cats, but her responsibilities grew steadily.
“It turned into running a small business over the last 20-something years,” she said.
Ted Prettiman has been on the Action For Animals board for about 30 years. He remembers when Newill started.
“She started out as a volunteer, and since she was so passionate for animal welfare, she just kept increasing her level of involvement, and doing more and more for animals and for the organization,” he said.
For the last three years, Newill has served as Action For Animals' executive director. Now, the Unity resident is stepping down to focus on other endeavors, but she won't stop helping animals in need.
“I'm getting ready to get a little more hands-on with the animals,” she said.
When she started in 1994, Action For Animals didn't have a shelter. It was a team of volunteers helping foster homeless pets.
“It was just a small group of women looking to make a difference fostering. And I always tell people, never underestimate the power of a passionate group of volunteers,” she said.
In 1996 the society built a small shelter on Route 981, but it eventually outgrew that location.
Newill co-chaired the campaign to raise the money to build the current shelter on Route 217.
The humane society now houses about 150 animals at a time — mostly dogs and cats. But once in a while, the shelter takes in something out of the ordinary, manager LuAnn Hutcheson said.
“We've had chickens. We've had goats here. We've had pot-bellied pigs,” she said.
Even snakes and alligators have found help.
Many animals that come to the shelter have been abused; some come in on the brink of death, starving or badly injured, Newill said.
“I have seen horrific abuse and neglect. But what I take away from my experience is the absolute incredible spirit and reaction of the community,” she said. “An animal that lifts its head and licks you when it's almost dead, that's what reminds you why you do it.”
Newill's ambition and fresh ideas helped turn Action For Animals into what it is today, Hutcheson said.
“She made this grow. She came in one day and said, ‘We're going to start a spay/neuter clinic,' and I looked at her and said ‘OK,'” Hutcheson said.
The clinic now serves about 3,000 animals a year.
“With her help, and her knowledge, and everyone on that board of directors, this has been an awesome journey,” Hutcheson said.
The humane society has grown to the point where Newill can no longer juggle being executive director with her other job as graduate aid coordinator at Seton Hill University.
“We needed a full-time person in there,” she said.
The society board selected Margaret Martin to take over.
Newill wants to focus on running the Bernie Matthews Opportunity Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships and financial support to students in need, named after her late father, a beloved former basketball coach at St. Vincent College.
But Hutcheson knows Newill won't be far away if Action For Animals needs help.
“I know she's always going to be there if I pick up the phone,” she said.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer.