After 29 years, Peggy Bender still loves her job: teaching people in Fort Wayne how to take care of their animals.
Bender, the community relations and education specialist at Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control, will retire Sept. 1. She will continue working in her own video-production business. A graduate of Indiana State University, Bender's first job was at Red Cedar Camp, where she did a lot of the fundraising and community outreach. During one of Bender's presentations about Red Cedar Camp, a city employee saw her and then suggested her to Animal Care and Control for a newly created education job. She got the job and was excited by the challenge of building the program.
"The only money they had in the budget for my new position was to pay me," Bender said.
The goal for her first year was to reach 10,000 school children in Fort Wayne. Her only resource was the copy machine in the office; that moved her to look into fundraising, even though it had never been done. She put together the first Pet Walk to raise money for the education and outreach program, then Picture Your Pet followed. Within a month of her start she had her first Teen Care program up and running with 25 teenagers. She has developed at least 12 programs over the years, including a nationally recognized animal-safety education program.
Her school program teaches children to look beyond their own needs to the needs of others. "When you do this with animals the kids are automatically engaged and you can present them with concepts that they will grasp a little easier then just saying, 'Be nice to the person who sits next to you,'" Bender said.
The program started with 27 teachers in the first year; last year they had 519 teachers involved. After 10 years of taking her message into community classrooms, the program became too big.
"I was beginning to say no to more teachers than I could say yes to about school visits," Bender said.
So her solution was to start producing videos that could be broadcast over the Fort Wayne Community Schools TV network and City TV. The show provided students with the same educational information she had given in the classroom. The name of the program is the Kind Club Show. She was able to learn the ropes of shooting and producing video through a collaboration with FWCS in 1995. Kids also receive a newsletter every other month.
Bender then took her message to adults in meetings with community groups and neighborhood associations, as well as in articles she writes for associations' publications. These articles help people in the neighborhoods deal with livability issues, like a barking dog problem or leash laws. It meant new programming and using social media, which has really boosted their viewership. Her continued programs and appearances on local TV stations over the years also helped to get Animal Care and Control's message to the public.
"What was really so thrilling for me was just the variety of my position," Bender said.
Among other programs Bender started was the first spay/neuter assistance program at Animal Care and Control. She got the idea after watching an older man turn in his cat. He couldn't afford the city license for an unneutered animal, and he couldn't afford to have his animal altered.
"He was priced out of his pet," Bender said.
She began fundraising so people could get assistance to afford to alter their pet. The cost to the pet owner is still very minimal for that program.
As technology changed, Bender adapted. She has become a webmaster and a video producer guru, and that has led to her new venture, a video production company.
She will still have a hand in Animal Care and Control. She will retain her position on the Humane Education Advisory Council, a 10-member board former Mayor Paul Helmke created. The council includes eight adults, including teachers, and two young people. Bender said when she had Helmke create that counsel she had him create a position on it for her so they were all on equal footing. Bender said she has told her replacement, Jodi Hamilton, volunteer coordinator for the past six years at Animal Care & Control, she is happy to help her as long as she does not become that person who won't let go.
"I don't want to be that person," Bender said.
She said if she thought she wasn't being helpful anymore she would find another way to help out. "I will always be connected to this place in some way," Bender said.