When then-Burbank High School student Yvonne Soto started work with Burbank Unified School District's Regional Occupation Program in Animal Care, she was by no means a cat lover.
But fast-forward three years, and Soto is now not only very fond of felines but is enthusiastically pursuing a veterinary career while working as a vet tech at Media City Animal Hospital in Burbank.
In fact, she's not the only one.
Katie Hayes and Carlos Rivas, both part of the first ROP in Animal Care program, also turned a semester of volunteering with animals into more than just school credit. Hayes now attends Bel-Rea Institute of Animal Technology in Colorado and is on her way to becoming a vet tech, while Carlos recently started a job as a kennel attendant at the Burbank Animal Shelter, where all three students got their start.
"I had always wanted to do something with animals," Rivas said. "ROP gave me that opportunity."
The program was started in September 2007 by Burbank Animal Shelter Supt. Brenda Castenada, who went through a similar program while she was in high school. The ROP animal program was created with the goal of providing students with what they would need to know to get an entry-level position working with animals, she said.
Students learned the basics of animal care, including the difference between breeds, medical terminology, grooming and animal behavior, and sometimes even preparing animals for surgery, Castenada said. The class was a hit.
"They were great students and enjoyed the class so much that we created an advanced ROP animal class because there was so much interest," she said.
Animal shelter employees work one on one with students to develop their skills. There are 15 to 25 students in each class.
"Since we're a small facility, we get to know them, mentor them and guide them," Castaneda said.
The leadership Soto received during the program helped her land a job as a veterinary technician at Media City Animal Hospital after volunteering there.
She was offered the job after supervisors saw her steady progress.
"She was very diligent," animal hospital Manager Kathryn Schneider said. "She grasped the concepts right away."
The fondness is mutual — Soto thoroughly enjoys working there, she said.
"It's very good teamwork. I'm always learning," she said, adding that if she hadn't enrolled in ROP, her job, which she's juggling with courses at Los Angeles Pierce College, would have been overwhelming.
Hayes, who left to study veterinary technology at Bel-Rea, feels the same way.
"It prepared me for a lot, actually," she said. "What I'm learning right now, I learned in ROP. It kind of makes you feel that you're ahead."
Rivas, who has been an animal lover from a young age, just finished up his first week as a kennel attendant at the animal shelter. And the position didn't just land in his lap, he said. He applied several times before he got the job.
"I didn't think in a million years that I would get this job," he said. "ROP is a great program. I recommend it to everyone."
The students, however, aren't the only ones who benefit — their presence helps shelter animals that need to develop socialization skills before they're adopted, Castenada said.
They help out our animals a lot," she said. "They don't get the day-to-day human companionship that pets at home do."
Hayes says their work paid off.
"It taught the animals that there are people that do care about them, that they're not just neglected, they're people that care about them and want to find them good homes."
All three volunteers have even kept a few shelter residents in mind.
Rivas fondly remembers the connection he made with a pit-bull mix named Snickers.
"He was there for almost a year," he said. "No one would adopt him. But I got super close to him. I would walk him and pet him — I made a connection with him."
Snickers was adopted a few months after Rivas finished the ROP experience.
The program had such an impact on Hayes and Soto that both regularly visit the shelter when they can. In fact, Soto hopes her old haunts fall into her future plans after she graduates.
"I want to stay in Burbank," she said, adding that she would like to work at Burbank Animal Shelter or Media City Animal Hospital.
Although Hayes is in Colorado, she also visits the shelter whenever she comes back home.
Castenada, who contacted her own ROP teacher when she started the program, loves that she's been able to give back and help her former students.
"I see their passion and excitement," she said. "It's something you might sometimes forget. It takes me back, and I love to see it."