EDITOR’ S NOTE: This article was written prior to the pandemic. Please bear that in mind when reading.

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When Ashley Foster decided to leave the rough winters of Chicago and return to her hometown of Birmingham, AL, in 2014, she knew she wanted to get involved with Hand in Paw. Serving North Central Alabama and Tuscaloosa, Hand in Paw is an animal-assisted therapy nonprofit with professionally trained volunteer handlers and animal therapy teams offering support to healthcare facilities, schools and human service organizations free of charge.

Ashley joined the Hand in Paw junior board, and when the organization was looking for a new Director of Events and Strategic Partnerships, she jumped at the chance to join the staff — which she did in 2018. At the start of 2020, Ashley — a graduate of Furman University in Greenville, SC — was named Hand in Paw’s Development Director. We talked with Ashley about her new role, animal-assisted therapy and the future of Hand in Paw. We’re excited to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Ashley Foster.

Ashley Foster of Hand in Paw

Meet our newest FACE of Birmingham — Ashley Foster of Hand in Paw!

Before you were on staff, you supported Hand in Paw as a volunteer. Why are you so passionate about animal-assisted therapy?

I’ve been an animal person for as long as I can remember. From childhood on, I’ve just found that dogs can provide such a source of comfort and solace during difficult times. Although my dog is not a Hand in Paw therapy animal, I kind of consider her my therapy dog. She’s brought a lot of laughter, happiness and joy. And in the hard times, she provided unconditional love. I’ve had her since I was 22. When you’re in your 20s, there’s a lot of transition, and she was the one constant.

What did you do before working at Hand in Paw, and how have those roles prepared you for this one?

Right out of school, I started working at a technology company in Greenville as an events assistant. I had a few other jobs in Greenville, and then when I moved to Chicago, I moved to the nonprofit sector. I was essentially doing the same thing in event planning but at the Salvation Army. I learned a lot in that role, and I had to do fundraising. Raising money was new to me, but I did that through events. So, I was using my skill set to fundraise for that cause. When I moved home, I worked at the cancer center at UAB in the same kind of role. I also worked in suicide prevention before this job, but I knew if I wanted to progress in my career, it would lean more toward development and donor giving.

Ashley Foster with her dog

Ashley’s love for her own dog — and animals in general — is what led her to Hand in Paw. “Dogs can provide such a source of comfort and solace during difficult times,” she says.

As Hand in Paw’s Development Director, do you plan to implement new strategies for fundraising and donor giving?

I work very closely with Brittany Jennings, who’s our Director of Communications, and she has insight into all of the waves of technology and ways of fundraising through online resources. One thing she developed is a rebranding of our monthly giving. When I researched millennials and new donors, I learned about the importance of recurring monthly giving. Brittany compares it to Netflix for charities. We rebranded it and named it The Pack. We’re already seeing new people sign up. That’s a great way for people to give even if they want to do just $5 a month. It makes a difference.

We also just got approval to get two dip jars. It’s basically a digital version of a jar where people can donate cash or coins, which we’ve had at all of our booths and events, but nobody has cash anymore. So, you just dip your card in and you can donate that way.

Tell us about Hand in Paw’s events.

I oversee our three major fundraisers: Mutt Strut, Picasso Pets and Barktoberfest. From logistics to sponsorships to vendors, I’m your point person. Mutt Strut is our major fundraiser, and we have over 1,000 people and 700 dogs come out.

What do you think most people don’t know about animal-assisted therapy that you would like to get out to the public?

There is some confusion around animal-assisted therapy when it comes to therapy dogs versus service animals versus emotional support animals. The primary difference is service and emotional support animals are specifically trained for one individual. Our dogs are trained to provide therapy to multiple people. So, you might see someone in an airport who has a service dog wearing a vest that says, “Do not pet.” But one of the main things we look for when we screen our dogs is making sure the dog enjoys being pet. Our dogs are very friendly, very well-behaved, and they love tummy rubs. [They] don’t have the same legal rights as a service dog. We have pre-approval to get into our specific facilities, obviously, but a Hand in Paw team can’t just put on the therapy dog scarf and walk into a restaurant.

Ashley Foster of Hand in Paw

While emotional support and service animals are specifically trained for one person, Ashley tells us the dogs at Hand in Paw are trained to provide therapy to multiple people.

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Tell us more about the services Hand in Paw provides.

I think a lot of people are familiar with Petscription, which is our largest and most broadly applied program where we go into hospitals, retirement homes and other healthcare settings and provide comfort, distraction and healing with our dogs. But we have three other program areas: education, violence prevention, and trauma and grief response.

We help with literacy skills through our Sit, Stay, Read program. We’re launching a supplemental program called READ (Reading Education Assistance Dogs), and we go to after-school programs and the YWCA. We also have our dogs do regular visits in classrooms with students with special needs.

With violence prevention, for elementary school children, we do the No More Bullying! curriculum for that group. For older children, we have a curriculum-based program called Pawsitive Living.

With trauma and grief, we visited UAB Highlands and Parker High School after their shootings. These teams have advanced training that they go through and provide comfort, support and help to survivors to help them process what’s going on.

Ashley Foster posing in front of portrait of dog

When she’s not at Hand in Paw, you can catch Ashley at a concert or watching a scary movie.

Shifting gears, what do you like to do when you’re not working?

I think there are a lot of great fitness opportunities in Birmingham. I started going to Ignite Cycle a year ago, and it’s really been my home away from home — an outlet to meet new friends and do something different. I’m doing the Wellness Passport right now. One place I never expected to like is Battle Republic, but now I’m boxing! I also like taking advantage of the nature resources Birmingham has like Railroad Park and Oak Mountain, and I love hiking Ruffner Mountain.

RELATED: Meet Nashville’s Animal Whisperer: Dr. Rahel Klapheke Sloan

Do you have any favorite restaurants?

I love Melt and Big Spoon, and there are some restaurants I grew up going to that still hit the spot like Davenport’s.

What’s the best advice you have to give?

Stay present. It’s easier said than done, but that was my New Year’s resolution, so I have written reminders. It’s my mantra. And I believe if it’s something you can come close to mastering, happiness is much easier to reach.

What are three things you can’t live without?

Cheese dip, sparkling water and Amazon Prime.

Thank you, Ashley! And thank you to Eric & Jamie for the beautiful photos.

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