A lifelong love of Pomeranians led Kandi Hillyer away from her background in health care and eventually to her new role as director of the Humane Society of Central Texas. She is the third person in four years to hold the title.
Hillyer grew up in southern Florida and worked for Concentra, a national health care chain, for 12 years. She started volunteering at a Pomeranian rescue, and when she and her husband moved to Iowa, she joined the Des Moines County Humane Society as a volunteer. She served on the board there, then worked as director for seven years.
“We were having a really hard time getting someone in there with experience, so I took the full-time director position and stayed,” Hillyer said.
She started at the Humane Society chapter in Waco two weeks ago, replacing interim Director Jordan Cervantez. Cervantez stepped into the interim role after the board of directors fired Paula Rivadeneira in August, shortly after she filed a complaint against then-board President Tom Lupfer. Rivadeneira was a replacement for Don Bland, who served as director until 2019, when the board fired him, saying he was not focusing enough on fundraising.
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“We were looking for a combination of good business and management skills, fundraising skills and preferably an animal shelter or animal welfare background,” local board President Christie Acosta said. “It’s particularly challenging to find that combination, and we feel like with Kandi we found that.”
Hillyer said that during her time volunteering at an Atlanta shelter with high intake, then serving as Humane Society director in Des Moines, she learned how important social media activity can be for a shelter, along with which breeds have stigmas against them and how to help they find homes regardless. She is planning a St. Patrick’s Day event specifically for pit bull adoption later this month.
“You can go through phases where you’re not so full, you have plenty of kennel space, and within a week that can completely turn around,” Hillyer said. “You never know what’s ahead.”
The city of Waco owns and operates the Waco Animal Shelter, and the Humane Society runs adoptions and the rescue program for the city.
Hillyer said she also hopes to expand the list of animal rescue operations, both local and in other states, including rescues that specialize in one dog breed. The city shelter works regularly with five to 10 others. She said the shelters in densely populated Southern cities she is used to working in usually have more strays to manage than shelters in less populated states, and shelters in the Pacific Northwest often take in animals from busier shelters.
“It’s challenging work to nail down a rescue group that has space, because they’re like us,” she said. “Sometimes kennels just get full.”
Hillyer said her other goals include networking to increase donations from the community, and polishing the Humane Society’s customer service. The shelter always needs more donations of food, treats, harnesses, leashes and other pet supplies, and relies on donations for funding.
Acosta said the nonprofit has struggled to plan events ahead of time during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It seems like we could plan something and then we’ll go through another cycle, people isolate again and it’s just made planning difficult because we don’t want to be on the wrong end of that cycle,” Acosta said.
Hillyer said the Humane Society is planning a gala for October, and she is interested in staging a trivia night fundraiser in the future.
For now, the shelter’s nine-person full-time staff has its hands full. The Baylor University students who volunteer there are gone for spring break, and the shelter was housing about 190 dogs as of Thursday, with another 130 in foster homes. Some of them are puppies too young to be spayed or neutered and adopted out, but between 60 and 70 need homes.
Adoption fees will be waived Saturday during a Clear the Shelter event, and shelter staff hope to adopt out 50 to 75 dogs. Hillyer said the shelter receives a relatively small number of cats each month compared to dogs and has an easier time placing them in foster homes as a result.
Acosta said it has been difficult in recent years to predict when shelter occupancy will spike.
“In a normal year, this would be the start of a busier season, the start of puppy and kitten season,” she said. “But honestly, I don’t feel like we’ve had downtime in a while, so I don’t know what to predict at this point.”