On Sept. 1, Chelsea Staley was named director of the Kanawha County Humane Association, a match that she believes was engineered by providence.
She started out in marketing, then channeled her considerable compassion into skilled nursing in nursing homes.
Volunteering it the animal shelter opened her eyes to a whole new outlet for her humanitarian instincts. When her nursing job took a back seat to the shelter work, she knew God had placed her where he wanted her to be.
At 34, she runs the state’s largest shelter, processing 5,000 animals a year.
Forceful, enthusiastic and exceedingly persuasive, she concentrates on animal health and adoption,
You can’t see the halo. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.
“I was born in Elkview and grew up in South Charleston. My parents got divorced when I was 3. We moved out on Thanksgiving Day.
“I had no idea what I wanted to be, not even in grad school. I was more interested in the social aspect of things. I went to WVU because of the football team.
“I majored in fashion design, merchandising and consumer sciences, a far cry from animals.
“I always loved animals. I brought home every stray pet that came my way. I’ve had dogs, cats, rabbits. I had an iguana named Bob.
“I never thought of animal welfare as a viable industry. I wanted to climb the corporate ladder and make a million dollars, that whole American dream.
“I was offered a job at McJunkin with the marketing team. To this day, Elaine Michael is the best boss I’ve ever had. She had a compassion for her employees and treated them like family, but also knew how to coach you and make you grow as an employee.
But I didn’t feel like there was a lot of humanity in selling pipes, valves and fittings to the Exxons and Chevrons of the world.
“I moved on to skilled nursing because I loved two things — animals and old people. I had a couple of grandparents in a nursing home and I felt like that’s a place I could make a difference. I loved the patients, their families. I was director of sales and marketing. It was my job to make them feel welcome when they brought their loved one to our facility. But I sadly found there wasn’t as much humanity as I wish there would be.
“Payer sources was a big goal. Medicaid for example, doesn’t pay facilities as well as, say, Humana. There are lots of people we could have helped but they didn’t have the insurance. That was troubling to me.
“In grad school, I had adopted a puppy from here. It was the Friday before Easter. I fell in love with this puppy in kennel B-17. I couldn’t pick him up until Monday because he needed to be neutered. The vet called and said, ‘There is something wrong with this dog. We have to do a parvo test.’ I spent $1,600 I didn’t have and in four days, he passed away. I was devastated.
“I was frustrated at the shelter. I said, I’m going to run that place someday. I was just mad. I didn’t mean it. Life has a funny way of placing you where you are called to be. I started volunteering.
“I started the shelter’s Facebook page. I’ll never forget how happy I was when we got to 100 people on Facebook. Now we have 70,000, I felt if no one gave a face to those animals, no one would know they were here.
“I met Cathy McClung in Kanawha City. I met her at a board meeting. She said my photos weren’t current and I should do more. I said if she wanted more photos, she should take them herself. And she did. She does a lot of volunteering.
“I called the executive director and tried to help them overcome their problems rather than blast them on Facebook.
“Animal health is the big thing with me. Animals weren’t being vaccinated every time they went there and there were a lot of highly fatal diseases spread through the population that are preventable.
“Every day it seemed I spent more hours on my volunteer work and became less distracted at my job.
“Cathy and I started Dog Bless, a nonprofit. Its mission is to reduce euthanasia in dogs at KCHA. That organization is entirely volunteer.
“I started here May 15, 2013, as rescue coordinator. I took a 50 percent pay cut to come here but it’s where my heart is. I would have lived in a tent to take this job.
“I would do this job every day for free if not for student loans. It’s my calling.
“On Sept 1, I officially became executive director. Just after midnight, somebody threw a cinderblock brick threw a window and robbed the place. I should have taken that as an omen to run like hell.
“When I became executive director, we had nine people, me included. Today we have 50.
“Five thousand animals a year pass through these doors, 3,500 just since I’ve been director.
“In fiscal year ’18 we saved 96 percent of dogs that come here and 87 percent for cats. The year before I stated working here, it was 8 percent.
“Our budget is about $1.5 million and 82 percent of that is private funding.
“What we learned during the flood changed who we are forever. Our community didn’t want to give up their pets. They wanted us to help them take their of their pets in the place they are in. I think that says lot about West Virginia.
“We’re shifting our focus now to people with pets in poverty, people who might just need a little help from the shelter.
“Last summer, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was floored. I didn’t have time for cancer.
“I was real personal about it because I felt that was my personal battle.
“I went to MD Anderson in Houston and the CAMC Cancer Center and was ultimately treated at the Cleveland Clinic. I’ve been in remission since February.
“I was worried about what would happen at the shelter while I was having treatment. It forced me to relinquish control. Now there are three people who report to me versus 10 previously.
“The big goal for me here is to build a new facility or dramatically renovate. This was not built as a no-kill facility. It was built to warehouse and euthanize animals quickly.”