by Bob Gordon, FOTAS Director of Communications
They are a cute but motley crew of dogs. Durango is a handsome Retriever mix with a missing leg; Tater Tot is a Pit Bull dwarf with a heart murmur; and Tiny is a toothless, 2-pound, teacup Chihuahua with virtually no lower jaw.
All three were homeless and, due to their special needs, difficult to adopt out. But for Judith Gulden-Schmitt, a veterinarian technician at the Aiken County Animal Shelter (ACAS), the challenges each of these canines faced just made them more special.
“If I could, I’d adopt every special needs animal that comes in here, but of course that’s not possible,” Judith said. “But the one’s I do adopt, I give them the best home and care I can possibly provide.”
Judith, who celebrates her third year as an ACAS employee in October, appreciates the struggles of the stray animals that are brought to the shelter every day, and has an intimate understanding of the value of a stable home. She knows it only too well because for about two years, she and her daughter, Emily, were homeless themselves.
Judith came to South Carolina from Trier, Germany in 2008 and was a stay-at-home mother while her husband worked. But when the marriage ended badly in 2011, she had to find a way to recover from the trauma of a broken relationship while at the same time secure temporary shelter for her and her daughter. She also had to find a job so she could rent an apartment and provide for her family.
It was all overwhelming and seemed an impossible goal at the time. But an organization called Nurture Home, part of Mental Health America of Aiken County, helped her get organized and plan a path into the job market. She got back on her feet by doing volunteer work for animals, and in 2013, took a vet technician class at Aiken Technical College. After completing the class, the ACAS hired her as a vet tech and assistant. Before long, the additional responsibilities and income at the ACAS allowed her and Emily to move into a place of their own.
“I want people to know that homelessness is not taboo,” Judith said. “There are people and families dealing with difficulties right here in Aiken and many people are one paycheck away from finding themselves on the street. I used to be embarrassed by it and hide it from most people, but now I embrace it because the experience has made me who I am today.”
Today, Judith is not only successful in her career, but is also on the Nurture Home board of directors and helps counsel those who are struggling financially. In fact, just this week, she and Emily spoke at a “Hearts for Hope and Homes” event to an audience of about 100 people.
Meanwhile, Durango, Tiny and Tater Tot are also benefitting from Judith’s successful journey.
“I think God gave me the purpose, after I was homeless, to pay it forward,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be without a bed to sleep in, to not have a home to go to. And by taking in these dogs, I can give them a second chance at a good life.”
Their lives are in our hands.