Liz Taranda, a volunteer representing Clifton Animal Shelter in New Jersey, wins Top Cat Shelter Volunteer of the Year honor

(BPT) – Liz Taranda vividly remembers adopting her first cat.

She visited four animal shelters near her hometown of Clifton, New Jersey, clutching Petfinder ads as she arrived at each shelter to meet cat after cat. Then she started to fall for Murphy, one of the cats at Clifton Animal Shelter.

“I believe I ended up at Clifton Animal Shelter four days in a row,” she says. “I took every family member with me – I took it that seriously because I wanted to be sure.”

Then, the moment arrived: the “Oh my, what if somebody else adopts him?” moment. “That’s how I knew,” Liz says.

Fast-forward more than a decade – three more adopted cats and thousands of volunteer hours later – and you’ll still find Liz at Clifton Animal Shelter, where she’s now vice president and head cat volunteer of the Friends of the Shelter, the non-profit organization that manages adoptions for Clifton Animal Shelter.

And this year, she’s also the first-ever Purina Cat Chow Shelter Volunteer of the Year – selected from a pool of 50 finalists by people across the country.

Here’s a look at why she was chosen.

Cats come first

Liz’s first responsibility: giving a voice to those without one. She considers it her job to speak for the cats.

She speaks for Winnie, a one-eyed black and white cat Liz found in a run-down camping trailer with several other ravenous, abandoned cats.

She gave a voice to Petunia, who was 12 years old when she was abandoned. It took two months for volunteers to even to be able to pet her, but Liz took it upon herself to keep caring for Petunia until she could be coaxed out.

Then there’s Belle, who was at the shelter for six months. She never wanted to come out of her cage and was constantly overlooked by adopters searching for a cat who was sweeter and more approachable.

Liz helped find homes for all three of them. She’s got a soft spot for the special cases: the sick, neglected and senior cats.

Liz believes there’s a home out there for every cat. Sometimes finding it just takes a little longer. “And when you find someone ready to take the plunge, you feel euphoric,” Liz says.

Adopters are family

Cats do come first at Clifton Animal Shelter. All they ask for is food, care and lots of love.

But a forever home could walk away any time, which is why Liz says she gives 110 percent every day. “Without adopters coming in, our animals have nothing,” Liz says.

Friends of the Shelter volunteers work hard to make the shelter a warm, inviting place to build relationships between adopters and the cats. They get to know adopters as well as they’ve gotten to know their four-legged charges: Liz and her team try to educate potential adopters and find the best match for everyone who walks through their doors.

If there’s not a match at Clifton Animal Shelter, Liz is ready with a list of six other area shelters for adopters to check out. “It’s not a competition,” she says.

Once adopters leave with their new pet, they’re Friends of the Shelter family for life, counting on Liz and the other volunteers for support, education and even quick nail trims.

…and so are volunteers

Liz is quick to insist that though she holds the vice president title, she’s just another one of the rank and file at Friends of the Shelter. She may fill out more paperwork some days – and more people recognize her as the face of Clifton Animal Shelter – but she thinks of herself simply as one of the cat volunteers.

“We all do the same thing, and we work together as a team,” she says. “We all share the glory when a cat leaves for its forever home.”

Being a better volunteer

With 12 years under her belt as a volunteer, Liz has seen other volunteers come and go. In the right situation, being a shelter volunteer teaches compassion, loyalty, responsibility, motivation and a singular focus – Liz says the experience has given her all that and more. “You should feel incredible every day you’re sacrificing personal time for a shelter,” she says.

Her tips for volunteering at an animal welfare organization are simple:

Know what motivates you: enter into the volunteer commitment for the right reasons.

Do your homework: find an animal shelter you really respect. Ask questions and get a solid understanding of its policies and procedures.

Build a support team: find fellow volunteers to lean on for support when the volunteer job is emotionally taxing.

Make extra time: help the shelter create a gentle, calm environment for the cats they care for by spending extra time with the adoptable cats.

“It’s the extra time we give that will make these cats more adoptable,” she says. “You sit with them, you love them, you do everything you can…if you make them happy and lessen their stress, they’re going to get adopted.”

A 24/7 commitment

If it’s not obvious, Liz’s job at Clifton Animal Shelter is a 24/7 one.

Liz admits that some people – sometimes even her fellow volunteers – think her priorities are a bit skewed, that she’s crazy to give as much time as she does to the shelter. But she’s got a supportive family who understands why she does what she does, and that makes all the difference.

“My dream is for every cage to be empty,” Liz says. “Until then, our priority is doing right by the animals and the adopters.”

Purina Cat Chow donated $ 25,000 to renovate the cat facilities at Clifton Animal Shelter in honor of Liz as its Shelter Volunteer of the Year to help create a gentler, less chaotic environment for cats. The program donated nearly $ 100,000 among the 50 participating shelters – one in every state – in recognition of their volunteers in cash donations, cat food and cat care supplies to help lessen the stress for cats living in shelters while they await their forever home.

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