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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Meet the Director: Makena Yarbrough

Makena Yarbrough photo

In the summer of 2000 she had a life-changing experience when she went with her parents on a vacation to Greece. She was dismayed by the number of street dogs and cats she saw.

People told her that the dogs and cats had caretakers who fed them, but they had no homes and she could see that not all of them had enough food. One night as she and her parents were leaving a restaurant she saw a starving dog huddled in the street. She fed that dog and others that she saw, but was overwhelmed with the magnitude of the need and a feeling of helplessness.

When Makena returned to the United States she began to think seriously about what direction she wanted to take in life. She decided that she wanted to work on animal welfare, and the memory of the starving dog she saw in Greece led her to decide to help homeless animals. That fall, she quit her promising career in marketing and took a job with the Richmond SPCA as its Director of Education. In a few months she was promoted to Director of Operations.

The Richmond SPCA in the early 2000’s was one of the best places in the United States for a person who wanted to make a difference for homeless animals. The Richmond SPCA CEO, Robin Starr, had visited the San Francisco SPCA during Rich Avanzino’s tenure and was implementing his No Kill programs in Richmond. Makena stayed at Richmond for 7 years before moving in 2007 to another groundbreaking No Kill shelter, the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA. She was associate director there for two years, working with Susanne Kogut.

In 2009, a board member for the Lynchburg Humane Society (LHS) contacted Makena for advice. Lynchburg is an independent city in Virginia, about an hour southwest of Charlottesville and considerably more rural and blue-collar. LHS had the animal sheltering contract for the city and had been running the shelter for decades. Lynchburg’s live release rate was only 51% in 2008. The LHS board members had read Nathan Winograd’s book Redemption and decided that they wanted to shake things up and improve, and that was why they contacted Makena.

One of the things Makena recommended was that LHS hire an executive director, since the only leadership the shelter had was the part-time oversight of a board member. The board agreed, and offered Makena the job. She took over in July 2009.

LHS had some major obstacles in the way of improving its live release rate. The shelter building was very old and cramped, and almost impossible to sterilize. The staff had been doing things the same way for so long that it was hard for many of them to change. One of the first things Makena did was to ditch the shelter’s overly restrictive adoption requirements and institute open adoptions. She tripled donations to the shelter in two years. She instituted TNR and managed-admissions programs, and oversaw the takeover and successful restructuring of a failing spay-neuter clinic. In 2010, her first full year as director, the live release rate was 84%, and by 2011 LHS’s live release rate was over 90%. Makena continued to innovate, and was one of the early adopters of the new cat paradigms after reading the California draft whitepaper in 2013. LHS is now a member organization in the Million Cat Challenge.

Perhaps Makena’s biggest single accomplishment to date has been the new LHS shelter, which just opened in March. She set an ambitious fund-raising goal for the shelter of $4.8 million, and exceeded that goal by raising $5.2 million. The great majority of this money was from private donors, as the city’s contribution to the building is only a modest fee to lease the stray-hold area.

Makena’s marketing background has helped her keep the shelter in the public eye. Last summer LHS was runner-up in its division in the ASPCA Rachel Ray challenge. Makena used the competition aspect of the contest to get the city cheering for the shelter. She hopes to continue that kind of intensive marketing this year. The new shelter should help in the effort, as it is in a better location and provides a much better experience for visitors than the old shelter. Makena also wants to expand the help that LHS is already providing to the county and other nearby jurisdictions, and do more work on helping owners keep their pets.

The guiding principle for Makena and her board is to try new things. A new idea may not always work, but you won’t know until you try it. It is that attitude that has taken LHS from a failing traditional shelter to one of the most innovative No Kill shelters in the nation. Makena will be presenting a talk about LHS at this summer’s Best Friends National Conference in Atlanta.


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