DeKALB – Michelle Groeper has only been on the job as TAILS Humane Society’s executive director for one month, but she’s no stranger to the DeKalb animal shelter.
Groeper – rhymes with “paper” – worked at TAILS from 2011-2012. On July 15, she took over as executive director, following in the footsteps of Beth Drake, who left the position in May to take on the executive director role at a South Elgin animal shelter.
Groeper sat down with MidWeek editor Dana Herra last week to talk about her new role.
Herra: You’re not entirely new to TAILS. When were you here before?
Groeper: I was in corporate America for about 10 years straight out of college, then I switched over to nonprofits. I worked for the American Cancer Society for about one year, and I volunteered at Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin. I was on (Anderson’s) board of directors, and eventually I became the director of operations there. Then I came here (to TAILS) in 2011 as assistant executive director under Beth Drake, and I worked here for about 18 months.
Then I needed to take a job with health insurance, but I desperately missed being in an animal shelter. Now, my husband’s job is very stable and we have insurance and I was able to go back to where my passion lies, in animal welfare.
Herra: Isn’t Anderson Animal Shelter where Beth Drake went?
Groeper: It is. It’s funny; I live about 10 minutes from Anderson, and she lives close to here, so we joke that if we have to be at work early or stay late for some evening event we can go to each other’s houses to change and clean up.
Herra: How did your passion begin?
Groeper: I’ve always loved cats. I like dogs, but I’ve always loved cats. In fact, I have one, Frances, living in my office right now. She’s a big orange cat who thinks she runs the place.
I started volunteering at an all-cat shelter in Lombard called Cat Guardians. As I spent more time there as a volunteer, I started to understand animal shelters on an operational level, and to understand the need to have this place for homeless animals to go.
We moved out west and settled in South Elgin, so I needed a new place to volunteer, and there was Anderson right down the road. I started volunteering there and it became like a second job; I worked a full-time job, but I was there every Saturday. It got to where when people would invite us to weddings or things that you would plan on a Saturday, my reaction was, ‘But I volunteer on Saturdays.’ It’s just what I do. That’s where I really started to see how a large-scale shelter works operationally.
I started to see how every animal makes a difference to somebody. We’re trying to find the right home for them. It’s life changing. I started as a volunteer, but I just knew this is what I wanted to do.
Herra: Do you have any plans for TAILS?
Groeper: The shelter is in a great place. There are no major issues, internally or externally, or with the staff or volunteers. I walked into a very good situation, and I can’t thank my predecessor enough, or the folks who founded TAILS and have kept it going and have built it into the operation it is today. I have no plans to make any major changes. We’re just going to continue to enhance what we have, and continue our mission of saving as many animals as we can and finding good homes for them.
We are planning to build an addition to the shelter this fall. We’re going to build a dog exercise area, and we’re finalizing plans for that. We have some land in the back that’s fenced where the dogs can run and play and socialize. This will be an indoor exercise area that will allow us to do the same thing in inclement weather. It’s really key to the dogs’ stability and mental health and keeping calm and being social. I’m super excited about that.
We do have a new director of volunteers starting; she has some great ideas on new programs to put in place for our volunteers. We’re also going to be hiring a development and marketing manager, who will be helping with planning events and fundraisers and corporate sponsorships, and helping market the shelter as well. We’ve done a great job of promoting the shelter and getting out there in the community, and we want to continue to do that.
Herra: Tell me about your family pets.
Groeper: We have a cat, Kiya, who is 14. We just lost her sister a couple of months ago, and she thinks she is my shadow. If I’m upstairs, she follows me. If I sit down, she’s on my lap.
We’ll talk eventually about adding another animal to the family, but right now, she wouldn’t be able to handle it. ...Even just doing this, I came home after the first day and she smelled all the other cats on me, and she just gave me this look like, ‘Are we doing this again?’
Herra: What’s your favorite part of the work day?
Groeper: It may not be the main part of my job, but I love to go into the cat room and just spend time and get to know the cats and update their profiles for the adoption team, things like, ‘Oh, Fluffy really likes this.’ I like figuring out which cats from the back may be ready to move forward.
I also love to go running with the dogs after work. The weather has been so perfect. I’m in a job where I work a lot of hours, so it’s good for my stress level and for the dogs to take a couple of dogs and go out running after work on the path behind the shelter.