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'Out to Lunch' ... with Jane Stewart

Jane Stewart is executive director of the Georgia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Jane Stewart is executive director of the Georgia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

WHAT WE ATE

Mellow Mushroom — Suwanee Town Center

Greek salad $8.50

Pepperoni calzone $9.14

Unsweet tea $2.29

Coke $2.29

Tax $1.33

Total $23.55

Editor’s Note: “Out to Lunch” is a perodic feature that allows readers a chance to learn about the people behind the titles in Gwinnett County through a lunchtime conversation with a member of the GDP staff. The subject picks the place, we pick up the tab and then share the conversations that occur during the meal.

There is plenty on the menu to choose from at Mellow Mushroom, but a recent lunch with Jane Stewart starts with a side of irony. It seems the executive director of the Georgia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals — the no-kill shelter in Suwanee — is allergic to cats.

Luckily for the animals, she has no such allergy for long hours and devotion to the local SPCA, which opened in July of 2007. Stewart’s affiliation with the center began the following month and she worked her way up the volunteer ladder before becoming a full-time employee. The Suwanee resident never set out to make caring for the animals an occupation, but she got hooked while looking for a charity that her daughter Molly could help with.

“I wanted to volunteer together with my daughter, and the SPCA was very welcoming of kids and that’s how I got started,” Stewart said between bites of a Greek salad. “The center is a perfect place for (an animal loving) volunteer because they know (the animals) are safe once they are there.”

Once the animals are taken in, the SPCA tries to find them homes. It takes a small army of volunteers to make that happen, from dog walkers and kennel cleaners to folks willing to donate their Saturdays to help run adoption events. Stewart oversees that group of devoted workers, a job she couldn’t have imagined growing up in North Charleston, S.C.

“I always said I was a little girl who loved animals and had a Mom who didn’t allow animals in the house,” she said. “I tell (my mom) she created a monster. None of this might have happened if she had just let me keep that dog in my bed.”

Stewart’s first dog, Sean, was a dachshund that a neighbor named Miss Margaret allowed her to pick from a litter when Stewart was just 4 years old. The dog was a great companion, but was never allowed in the house. The inside is for people, her mother would say, and the outside is for pets.

That’s no longer the case for Stewart, whose queen-sized bed often overflows with her own three dogs and cat (despite the allergies) and the many animals her family fosters.

“It’s one of those deals that if you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom you lose your place,” Stewart said with a laugh.

At home, there’s a cat named Sammy along with her daughter and an understanding husband named Tim (son Howard is at the University of Georgia). There’s also a Saint Bernard named Heidi, a King Charles/Papillon mix named Teddy and a Cairn Terrier/Yorkie mix named Eunice, who has four legs but no back paws — “the sweetest thing on earth,” Stewart says. At work, that number grows to the hundreds, animals (not husbands) who are fed and cared for and trained in hopes of finding a proper home.

The goal, Stewart said, is to adopt out 100 pets per month. Last year, the SPCA met that number, finding homes for 1,200 pets. But Stewart and the SPCA always want to do more. It’s simple math: more pets getting adopted means more pets to bring in and more pets that aren’t out having unplanned litters, which starts the problematic circle all over again.

A Clemson grad who majored in tourism management, Stewart wasn’t schooled in animal studies. So the numbers she discovered when starting with the SPCA surprised her.

“The biggest eye-opener to me is the number we slaughter, over 200,000 a year in our state,” she said, referring to the amount of animals put down each year. “It’s a horrible number. We should have more pride than we do with these living creatures.”

Locally, there is much assistance, she said. From the restaurant you can see Town Center Park, site of the SPCA’s annual Run for the Rescues road race. It is one of the organization’s major fundraisers along with the group’s annual gala (tickets for it are still on sale through Sept. 3) and those events have enjoyed much support over the years, which is needed to keep the SPCA going since it only receives funds through donations and adoption fees.

“I had a person tell me once that you have to think of yourself as a fundraising entity that helps animals,” Stewart said. “There’s not a truer statement.”

There are four full-time and eight part-time employees at the SPCA offices — located at 1175 Buford Highway — and the center is twice as big as when it opened six years ago. The expansion, Stewart said, occured thanks to about 90 percent of the labor and supplies being donated.

Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes. From those who physically built the expansion, to the people who care for the animals to the anonymous donor who recently funded a $35,000 matching donor drive. Like any nonprofit, the SPCA can always use more: more money, more volunteers, etc. But Stewart is pleased, and proud, at how things have grown.

“With us operating on donations and adoption fees, it is very much a miracle that we are able to grow and keep afloat,” she said. “I just have to stop sometimes in the middle of a chaotic moment and say my thanks for all of the people that have helped us get where we are today.

“It can be very disheartening to see all of the obstacles that cats and dogs have to face in our state, but it is heartwarming when you see people pulling together to make things better for them. That is basically what we do here. We try to make things better for all of the cats and dogs that we have the opportunity to come in contact with.

“We seem to have wonderful luck getting the right people on board, and that is a miracle and I’m thankful for it. We’re in a good community right here in Suwanee. We’re very fortunate.”

So are the animals that end up at the SPCA. They have a leader who cares for them very much, even if on this day she leaves the restaurant with no doggie bag in sight.