Although technically April was National Volunteer Month, I’d like to take this belated opportunity to highlight someone who exemplifies what the term Volunteering is all about.
Rochele Watson is the Executive Director of Fort Wayne Pet Food Pantry. I might add that this title is an unpaid position. When I inquired, she stated that her hobbies are volunteering. And when I asked what she does for fun, she responded volunteering. It is evident to me that most of her waking hours are devoted to helping animals and people in need with a huge emphasis of “Be Kind.”
After working in a factory for the past 16 years, Rochele declares that she hit the lottery when she recently accepted a position with Humane Fort Wayne. As a volunteer there (formerly SPCA) for almost five years, to find employment in the field she loves is a dream come true. Her job is to work as a Feline Behaviorist and Animal Care Specialist. She works with cats that have mannerisms that make them a challenge to be adopted and she seeks to find and fix the roots of those barriers.
Rochele continues to volunteer with Humane Fort Wayne in their social services program, Pet Promises, which helps match resources to pet owners. From home visits, rides to veterinarian appointments and delivery of pet supplies to homebound clients, this volunteer position provided the introduction and education about animal welfare and pet retention needed for her to excel in her current position with Fort Wayne Pet Food Pantry.
In March, Rochele received the Bright Idea award from the Great Lakes Animal Welfare Conference for developing a program named Sams For Grams. This program is designed to partner robotic pets to seniors in living situations where real pets are not allowed or are no longer able to be cared for. It began when Rochele helped an elderly woman named Betty, by taking in her pet cat Sam. Betty had to move into a nursing facility that didn’t allow pets. There were regular visits but eventually the passing of her beloved pet left Betty lonely. Rochele had the insight to use a lifelike robotic cat to provide company for Betty and then other seniors. She currently has 20 clients at Noble Living in downtown Fort Wayne enjoying the companionship of robotic pets.
Rochele also serves on the Board of Fort Wayne heART of the City-Art Fort Wayne which supports local artists of Fort Wayne and bridges the gap between established and aspiring artists. Through networking opportunities, professional development and art education lectures, newer artists are welcomed and armed with the tools they need to be successful. HOTC also supports local businesses by building connections on behalf of local artists. Because of this, local artists are provided art show opportunities to promote and sell their work. The organization advocates for local individuals, organizations, and businesses by promoting them via social media and other marketing channels.
Although not a founder of the Fort Wayne Derby Girls, Rochele was in on the ground floor and skated for three years before her knees gave out. During her time with the Derby Girls, they did charity events each season. She took what she learned from that organization and when she and her best friends formed Fort Wayne Bombshells Burlesque Troupe in 2009, she brought an emphasis on charity shows. The troupe empowers women to feel comfortable, confident and good about themselves while still giving back to the community.
As Executive Director of Fort Wayne Pet Food Pantry, Rochele oversees daily business, grants, donor development, collects donations and delivers food to homebound clients. She also makes general welfare contact with clients and volunteers, cleans the bathrooms and vacuums. She says “This is one of the most comprehensive volunteer positions I have ever held.”
Since joining the organization just under two years ago, she is most proud of the Pet Food Pantry’s handling of the pandemic. “We added 125 distributions this year and quickly pivoted last year to accommodate about 2,000 pounds of food distributed in our two-hour Saturday Distributions.”
And while she doesn’t live in Waynedale, she has volunteered at Waynedale events and states “ya’ll sure made it easy to fall in love with this community during the last few years.”
She grew up near Franke Park, attending Queen of Angels and then North Side HS. While at Queen of Angels there was a school librarian that challenged her with reading books beyond her scope. That is why when she was asked to be a virtual guest reader by PBS this year it meant a lot to her.
She currently lives near Georgetown with her significant other Andy, and seven wildly different and silly cats that she doesn’t own, but shares her home with.
Very diverse in her efforts, Rochele admits there seems to be a theme to her volunteering. “I am always drawn to promoting the underdog” she said. “All community efforts are exactly that, it is not about one person or one organization but by people working together. I love to see Fort Wayne continue to grow and develop.”
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