Laurie Maxwell is welcomed like a celebrity in the Englewood community.People flag her down in the street.
They yell at her from porches.
They invite her in for coffee and birthday parties.
Young, white and driving a van covered with large decals of cats and dogs, Maxwell stands out in the predominantly black neighborhood.
But there is a strong bond between Maxwell and the residents who live in this scarred and under-served community.
That bond is a love for animals.
Maxwell, the assistant director of outreach for PAWS Chicago, the animal welfare organization, is the face of “PAWS for Life,” a program that launched last year in Englewood.
More than 25,000 cats and dogs live in Englewood where nearly half of the residents live below the poverty line.
Only about 5 percent of the pets are sterilized.
But for Maxwell, an animal lover with a master’s degree in social work, “PAWS for Life” is as much about aiding animals as it is about people.
“Ninety-five percent of the pets are acquired from the neighborhood, and people are not planning for it. They make a decision to take it into the house and do what they can,” she said.
“The program helps reduce the number of animals coming into shelters and reduces euthanasia rates. We need to reach out to this population in order to reach that goal.”
“PAWS for Life” provides transportation, veterinarian services, food, spaying and neutering without any cost to the pet owner.
Spend just a couple of hours on the street with Maxwell and the need becomes apparent.
We had just pulled up to the first stop on Maxwell’s list when I spotted a feral cat in the alley that was as big as a small dog.
“We’ve already spayed and neutered about 1,500 cats in the Englewood area,” Maxwell told me.
Within minutes of our arrival, a curious driver pulled up.
Joseph Thompson, who said he is the son of the late Ald. JoAnn Thompson, had recently surrendered a pit bull because the dog turned out to be in poor health.
“It came from a friend. When I saw the dog, he was in perfect condition. I went back two weeks later, and it had its head all down and wasn’t looking right. I wish I had met you before,” he said, taking some brochures that he promised to pass around.
A few blocks away, Maxwell stopped to check on a Chihuahua named “Here We Go.” The dog recently had an eye removed as a result of glaucoma.
Rosie Curry has had “Here We Go” for almost two years. Curry also has a cat she calls “Oreo” that was a stray.
“’Here We Go’ was in the alley on a big choke chain. One day the people where she was living got tired of her. I had my eye on her anyway and this guy asked me if I wanted her. They just left her out there, and I got her and put her under my coat and have had her ever since,” Curry said, cradling the dog in her arms.
“I don’t know how I would have taken care of her eyes and her nutrition if it wasn’t for PAWS. I don’t know if I could have done it because I am on a fixed income,” she said.
Maxwell said “PAWS for Life” is also helping to bring down stereotypes.
“Yes, this is very middle class and white,” she said “but we are all connecting over the animal. We are meeting people where they are without judgment, and seeing what their needs are and what we can do to help.”