After so many years in this business, I try not to have expectations.
So, I was surprised that I was surprised by the high caliber of the five Bakersfield Homeless Center clients I met last week who are in training at the SPCA to become animal care workers.
Sure, I figured they'd be glad to have jobs. And they are.
But the delight, the dedication and the emotion these five people brought to cleaning kennels blew whatever expectations I thought I didn't have right out the window.
"I wear it with pride," Jacob Carrasco told me as he displayed a poopy smudge on his jeans.
Actually, they're learning to do much more than just scooping poop and spraying out kennels, such as how to implant microchips, give shots, work with the public, etc.
Though they all agreed that cleaning is one of their most essential duties.
"Clean! Clean! Clean!" Maria Lopez said. "It's so important.
"If the contract goes through, we're all hoping to make some changes at the (Mount Vernon) shelter."
The contract is the one expected between the city of Bakersfield and the SPCA for the SPCA to oversee shelter operations once the city takes over the shelter on Mount Vernon Avenue from Kern County.
In case you've been living under a rock the last few weeks, I'll fill you in.
The county had operated the shelter on Mount Vernon for many years, taking in both county and city animals. But the two agencies fell out over a variety of issues and decided to split ways.
The operational agreement between the city and county expires Sept. 30. Since the shelter is on city land, that means the county has to move out.
County supervisors approved a deal last week to lease a space at 3951 Fruitvale Ave., and county staffers are now working feverishly to get it ready.
The city has offered to let the county stay at Mount Vernon until Dec. 1, or later, but the county has yet to say whether it needs the extra time.
So, when the SPCA will actually take over is still up in the air.
Meanwhile, Carrasco, Lopez and the other Homeless Center clients are soaking up as much information as possible from SPCA staffers.
"I love it," said Cathy Orn, the Homeless Center crew leader. "The staff here has been so helpful, taking time from their busy days to tell us not just what to do, but why it's important to do things a certain way. It's been really humbling."
I wondered if dealing with stray, sometimes abused or sick animals is tough.
No way, she said.
"How could you not love to come to work when there's a furry little face waiting for you and so happy to see you every day?"
The rest of the crew agreed they get as much, or more, from the animals as they give.
"It's symbiotic," Carrasco said.
I asked what the best part of the job so far had been.
"Seeing the animals get adopted," Lopez said, and the others agreed. "It's such a great feeling seeing them go to good homes."
What was the worst part, I asked (figuring it'd be the poopy stuff.)
"The same thing," Lopez said. The others all looked to the floor and quietly nodded.
"You get attached."
The Homeless Center has contracted with the city for the past two years to provide labor at the city's greenwaste facility and, more recently, to pick up litter along roadways.
Twelve Homeless Center clients work at the greenwaste facility and 18 on the highway crews.
Homeless Center director Louis Gill estimated the animal shelter might need 10 workers once the contracts are all signed and work gets under way.
The city pays the Homeless Center $15 per hour for each crew member. That covers the center's administrative, insurance and transportation costs, leaving enough for the employees to earn $8 an hour.
It's not a lot of money, but that's not really the point.
"It's giving people the opportunity to get back into the workforce," Gill said. "Many of our people apply for jobs 18, 24 months and they're rejected because they have less than perfect records."
In the last two years, 49 people have come through the city/Homeless Center jobs, according to Steve Teglia, assistant to the city manager. Of those, he said, 41 now have permanent homes as result of this opportunity.
"A couple have even been hired on as full-time city employees," Teglia said.
The employees are thoroughly vetted, including background and drug tests, before the Homeless Center sends them out for jobs. The SPCA training only went to those employees who'd already been vetted and had a work history at greenwaste or litter cleanup.
Lopez was working on the highway litter crew when she heard about the SPCA training and immediately asked to be considered.
"Picking up litter was a good job and I was helping my community," Lopez said. "But I love it here. I love this."
Crew leader Orn, who also helps manage the Homeless Center's warehouse starting at 7 a.m., gets the crew members together and drives them to the SPCA by 8 a.m. Their training lasts until 3:30 p.m. each day, four days a week. The training started the first week of September and will last through the month.
"It's hard work," crew member James Smith said. "But you don't really notice it until you get home at the end of the day and sit down."
They all understood that the city/county separation may take longer than anticipated. Or, there's the remote possibility the agencies might not split at all, in which case the Homeless Center clients wouldn't be needed.
Even if that were to happen, the crew members said they wouldn't regret their time at the SPCA.
"I've learned so much," said Brenda Gade, who's worked at the greenwaste facility for about two years.
"I could do this for the rest of my life," Lopez agreed.
"It's definitely something I could make a career of," Carrasco chimed in.
They are learning skills now that they hope will lead to full-time animal welfare jobs. Some crew members even talked about the possibility of becoming registered veterinarian technicians.
"That would be the coolest thing in the entire world, for our folks to become vet techs," Gill said. "I am so damn proud of them."
SPCA Director Julie Johnson said her staff can't say enough good things about the Homeless Center crew.
"They're such a driven group of people," she said. "They've just been a joy to work with."
Carrasco said everyone in the crew is an animal lover, so that helps. But beyond that, he said, he felt the Homeless Center crew had an even more special bond.
"Think about it, we're two-legged homeless creatures helping four-legged homeless creatures," he said. "Who could better understand them than us?"
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org