by Mary Wilson
For three-quarters of a century, Wayside Waifs has been preparing pets and people for the bond of their lives. This year, as they celebrate their 75th anniversary, the nonprofit organization focuses on remembering their rich history while preparing for the next 75 years.
Fenby Webster recognized that conditions for animals in the community simply weren’t right, and she sought to do something about it. With $5,000 and 28 other volunteers, 75 years ago, she purchased farm acreage along Martha Truman Road in Grandview to create the Jackson County Animal Betterment Association, which has grown to the almost 50 acres Wayside Waifs sits on today.
“This organization was created out of recognition by Fenby Webster of how animals were cared for at the local dog pound,” said Wayside Waifs President Geoff Hall. “She knew that what she was seeing wasn’t right. That was a sea change in society in recognizing that we should care about animals and that animals have intrinsic value beyond the utility.”
The farm that Webster purchased served as Wayside’s shelter for the vast majority of the organization’s existence. At some point, the Jackson County Animal Betterment Association became known as Wayside Waifs, and the organization has always been an independent nonprofit.
“Like most nonprofit organizations, we were hand-to-mouth, struggling to make ends meet,” said Hall. “The need for all these homeless animals in the area far exceeds what we could do. They were great intentions to do good, and they did good, but they didn’t have the luxury of resources.”
Expansion of the facility happened gradually overtime, as funding allowed. Hall said that the organization operated in this fashion up until the mid-90s. At that time, the Missouri Department of Agriculture said that Wayside was maintaining deplorable conditions for the animals in the organization’s care, and that a new shelter would need to be built or they would be shut down.
“Thankfully, a group of people said that we could either fold up, or we can forge ahead just like Fenby Webster and her friends did decades earlier,” said Hall. “They raised a tremendous amount of money to build the shelter we’re in today.”
The current shelter at Wayside Waif’s opened in 1998. Hall said that while the agency has had a good reputation in Kansas City since the beginning, the organization ran short of the goal to air condition the new building.
“We had the building built, but we didn’t have the climate control that we needed in Missouri,” added Hall. “At that time, a board member stated that she had a friend of the family who may have the interest and capacity to donate.”
That turned out to be successful local entrepreneur Harold Melcher, who, along with his business partner, was revolutionary in introducing the world to canned meats after World War II. At the time, the board member informed Melcher that there was a dog named Sophie at Wayside that he should come see.
“Harold said no. He didn’t like animal shelters and refused to come meet this dog,” said Hall. “So, Susan brought Sophie to him. He loved Sophie right away. The irony is that it took Sophie an entire year to love Harold. But, Harold loved this connection, and Sophie then became known as the dog that saved Wayside.”
Hall added that Melcher was generous to the organization, but his involvement went beyond his financial philanthropy. He recruited his own friends to become involved with Wayside Waifs, and Melcher fell in love with the organization and found a way to utilize his expertise in entrepreneurship.
“What he gave this organization was not only the gift of his time and his treasure, but also his talent of having professional expectations, hiring competent staff, the appreciation of branding, and recognizing the benchmarks of successful nonprofits organizations, and specifically successful nonprofit animal shelters,” said Hall. “Of all the previous 60 years, I consider Harold sort of a virtual founder. Without his influence, we wouldn’t be who we are. We’d probably be here, but Harold was an important secret ingredient to Wayside’s success in a lot of ways. The one thing he added that money can’t buy is leadership.”
Melcher, who turns 100 this year, served as Wayside’s board chairman for a number of years, and has since been named chair emeritus. Hall said that Melcher’s influence has helped Wayside maintain its credibility in the community as being an exceptional organization, but the nonprofit continues to recognize that resources are finite.
“We have to make decisions all the time based on allocating resources for the greatest good,” said Hall. “In its essence, Wayside is Kansas City’s largest no-kill pet adoption campus. What that means is adoption is our primary focus and means of helping animal welfare.”
Every animal that comes to Wayside is homeless, which can be the cause of many different scenarios. Some come from unsafe or unhealthy conditions, some are cases of neglect or abandonment, and others the volunteers or staff simply don’t know why or how they got there.
“Wayside is here to help animals,” said Hall. “We are a no-kill animal shelter. Euthanasia is a very rare occurrence here, and the condition in which we will choose euthanasia is a chronic medical condition that will practically guarantee suffering, or if behaviorally they are such a risk to people and other animals.”
Wayside maintains a nearly 98 percent live release rate, which means the animals that come to the shelter leave as pets. The organization is a managed-admission shelter. They control the intake of animals in order to provide the shortest stay possible for each pet, providing the opportunity to care for more animals over time. Working strictly with domestic animals, the average stay for each pet is right around 13 days, caring for nearly 6,000 animals annually.
“We strongly believe that a community of responsible pet owners is an embraceable community, a safer community. People are looking after each other. There are tons of benefits of pet ownership. But, pets aren’t for everybody,” said Hall. “We’re not saying that everybody should have a cat or a dog, but I think many people will say that their lives are better because of a connection with a pet. Even though we are an agency that helps homeless animals, we are really a human agency. We’re a people organization. Without people, none of these animals have hope.”
Moving forward, and to fulfill what Wayside sees as a necessity in the community, the organization will soon embark on creating the Wayside K-9 behavioral center of excellence. The organization will scientifically produce approaches to benefit shy and fearful dogs into becoming more confident around people, and high-arousal dogs becoming more calm and peaceful around people. With that will come brand-new, dedicated facility for these two populations of dogs.
“We recognize that our biggest limiting factor is our own facility,” said Hall. “While it’s great for some things, it’s not ideal for others. This new facility will provide these dogs with the quiet space and a professional staff to do this.”
Wayside has partnered with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which started a similar program a few years ago. SFS Architecture, out of Kansas City, will work with A.L. Huber contractors to build the facility. There will also be a significant expansion of the existing building to accommodate classroom space for public education like dog behavioral classes, and provide additional staff workspaces.
Hall invites anyone who hasn’t experienced Wayside Waifs in the last several years to come out and see the facility and the grounds. There is a pet cemetery (even a monkey is buried there) that dates back to 1946, an off-leash dog park, and walking trails on the 50-acre site.
“75 years is a big deal,” said Hall. “We recognize that at numerous points over the last 75 years we could have ceased to exist. I’ve been very lucky to inherit the hard work of so many of my predecessors. It is the love of this organization that was founded by Fenby Webster in 1944, and a recognition that we have been here for people and animals that entire time, that has made us a Kansas City metro region asset and resource.”
He added that the most important part of the Wayside organization is the people. With a staff of around 75, and a regular volunteer core of 1,400, Hall said that a large portion of the people who do the hard work day in and day out also contribute to the nonprofit financially.
“Culture, for me, is the most important thing that I can provide this organization,” Hall said. “The celebration of 75 years is more than a celebration of physical existence in Grandview and serving Kansas City metro; this is really a celebration of all the people who struggled through many, many years to provide the platform for where this organization is today. We’re looking forward to a future where the work done here is going to help animals far beyond our region.”