A Look At AWARE’s Incredible Volunteer Operation

Stonecrest’s wildlife rehab center usually has 85 weekly volunteers performing many tasks from enclosure cleaning and feeding to more advanced care such as wing wraps and turtle shell repair.

The Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE) is the only animal hospital in the metro area that takes in all species of native Georgia wildlife. Anything from a sick skink or little frog to injured coyotes, owls and even bald eagles. It might be hard to believe, but the majority of this incredible work at this small, nonprofit animal center located at the base of Arabia Mountain is done by a volunteer force.

AWARE accepts up to 2,000 injured and orphaned animals annually—and educationally, the facility delivers hundreds of ambassador programs at schools and festivals across Georgia, offers free tours every Saturday and Sunday at 1PM, and reaches millions through streaming media broadcasts of educational wildlife encounters and animal releases. “It’s a lot,” said Scott Lange, AWARE’s Executive Director. “We have about 85 weekly volunteers. That’s in addition to 9 mostly part-time staff, who regularly manage those 80-to-90 people.”

Lots Of Helping Hands

During its peak “baby season,” AWARE will have around 250 animals of all types of species in their facility. AWARE volunteers perform many tasks from the necessary labors of constantly feeding and cleaning up after hundreds of animals—that many creatures produces a lot of waste—to more elaborate duties like helping with medical procedures, administering subcutaneous fluids, doing wing wraps, and even some delicate turtle shell repair. “Many of our volunteers, I would say about a third, are considering going into vet school or becoming animal rehabbers,” said Lange. “They’re looking for experience.”

An AWARE volunteer and staff member carefully perform a turtle shell repair.

The work in an animal care center can be incredibly rewarding but requires a lot of logistics—and feeding. “Every species has it’s own specific [food] requirements that need to be met,” said Lange. “Exactly what we buy varies based on which species come in and how much we’re able to get donated.” According to Lange, last year the facility spent about $80,000 on patient food and supplies alone. The animal most often brought to AWARE? That would be the opossum because they and their babies (kept in marsupial pouches) are frequently found injured by roadsides where they scavenge through human food litter. 

The job can also take an emotional toll. Lange estimates that between 10 to 15 percent of animals they receive get euthanized due to their injuries. “It shows some people that this work is too difficult and emotional and unpleasant,” said Lange. “And other volunteers find that all they want to do with their life is help these animals.”

A History Of Volunteerism

An AWARE volunteer walks an injured black vulture.

Founded in 1999, AWARE has always relied on a primarily volunteer-based system, including some who’ve been coming back and giving their time for years. All those currently on staff started as volunteers, including Marjan Ghadrdan, who began in 2005 by donating her spare time at the center and now runs its Animal Care Department. Others have cultivated their volunteer hours at AWARE into successful animal care careers. The small nonprofit has also begun offering internships in communications, animal rehabilitation, and medicine.

“From the start, we’ve relied on our volunteers and their hard work,” Lange said. “We’re really building on what they built.” Lange started out at AWARE as a kind of volunteer as well, an unpaid board member. At the time, Lange was working for a law firm in Atlanta that encouraged him to join a board to gain more community leadership experience. “I chose AWARE because years earlier a friend and I had found an injured baby bird,” recalled Lange. “I Googled what to do and took it to AWARE, and they were able to save it.”

That seemingly innocuous decision to volunteer on AWARE’s board proved life-changing. Like many before him, Lange got hooked on the mission of taking care of injured and orphaned native Georgia wildlife. So when AWARE’s previous Executive Director Dr. Tarah Hadley stepped down, Lange said he would cover on an “interim basis.” “That was 8 years ago,” laughed Lange. “So I guess I was the person they were looking for.”

A Love Of Animals

Lange’s sudden change from law to animal care is not even the best part. His friend who helped him rescue that baby bird all those years ago, which, in turn, introduced Lange to AWARE? She’s now his wife, Nan Kemberling, and another regular volunteer at the animal care facility. “We both believe every creature deserves care when they need it,” said Lange with a smile. “So we love getting to devote ourselves to helping the patients at AWARE.”

Nan and Scott tabling for AWARE at an event.

Want to help at AWARE as well? Click here to volunteer or here to report an injured animal. And check out the Arabia Alliance’s Events Calendar for more volunteer opportunities.