Nancy Holdren was raised completely bilingual. With both her parents deaf, she learned to communicate fluently in both English and sign language.
So it’s no surprise she is now a sign language interpreter with the Gwinnett County Public School system. It was through her work with the deaf that she met her partner, Jessie Romer, a freelance sign language interpreter who also works in the deaf community.
It wasn’t long before they found they had something else in common: a deep love for animals – most particularly for those animals most in need.
The couple started out volunteering with a local animal rescue group, Pounds Puppies N’ Kittens, offering foster homes to rescued animals. But they wanted to do more, especially for animals that society usually doesn’t consider adoptable. It is their belief that, like people, animals too are able to feel bliss. They also believe that animals are entitled to experience that bliss.
So three years ago, Holdren and Romer purchased three and a half acres in Walton County and founded Bliss Animal Haven.
The shelter began taking in animals that had been severely injured and abused, those who were considered least adoptable because of the need for socialization or medical treatment. Romer took it upon herself to become a certified veterinary technician to take care of some of the medical needs and now even volunteers one day a week with Paradox - a low-cost spay and neuter clinic in Walton County.
“We charge an adoption fee and that does help with some of the costs, but it is expensive and we both have to work full time to keep up the shelter,” Romer said. “We started taking in about 20 animals at a time, but we have had to cut that down because it was too much.”
The animals that Bliss Animal Haven takes in are socialized inside the home in an environment just like one they will be adopted into. The rescued animals get to come into the home on a rotation basis to spend time with the couple’s own rescued cats and dogs.
The formula has proven successful. April 1, Bliss Animal Haven celebrates its third birthday, and during that time 280 animals have been saved. Many of these stories can be found under Happy Tails on the Bliss website.
But all this is still not enough for Romer and Holdren. In their line of work, they get to experience first-hand some of the frustration experienced by those in the deaf community.
“It is very difficult for them to make themselves understood in the hearing community, which is why there is a need for interpreters,” Holdren said. “Many would like to be included in things like animal rescue, but few organizations are set up for the communication that would be necessary.”
And that is where the next part of their plan comes in.
Romer and Holdren want to establish an animal shelter based on the same principles as Gallaudet University in Washington DC - the world’s only university specifically designed for the deaf and hard of hearing.
“It will be completely geared toward the deaf community, where the people who work there will be comfortable with communication being in their language – sign language,” Romer said. “We would one day like to have a shelter big enough to employ about 20 or 30 people, with all the technology necessary to operate it – and all the people working there will be from the deaf community.”
Road to the Dream
The founders of Bliss Animal Haven know it’s a big leap from what they have already achieved to what they really want, but they don’t intend to just dream about it. They have already taken steps to make it happen.
Since the couple is completely fluent in sign language, they wouldn’t have any problem implementing that part of the plan.
“Many of our friends are from the deaf community so it is often the language we communicate in, even here at home,” Holdren said, adding they do realize, however, that there is a lot more that would have to be done, particularly in raising the necessary funds.
“Jessie has already applied for some grants to help with what we need here, and has been successful,” Holdren said. “But we do know we will need a lot more funding for what we want – probably a couple of million - and we still need more money just to keep doing what we’re doing now.”
But while they’re working toward their dream, Romer and Holdren have taken steps to learn all they can about animal rescue. They have attended workshops and visited other rescue organizations, such as Best Friends Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, and Pasado Safe Haven near Seattle, Wash.; have taken Animal Sanctuary 101 workshops; and have fostered relationships with other rescue groups up north. They even have one of their rescued dogs on first name terms with former First Lady Barbara Bush.
“The man who adopted one of our dogs, Lilly, walks her on the same beach as Barbara Bush walks her dogs, and she knows Lilly by name,” Romer said.
While they realize they still have a long way to go, Romer and Holdren firmly believe there will come a time when this will no longer just be a dream. In the meantime, they are making sure that when the time comes, they are fully prepared to take on the challenge.