For years, making friends felt torturous for Odin Hensley, but with the help of some furry friends with adorable eyes, communicating with his peers has become a little easier.
- Odin Hensley found it difficult to make friends before he joined the Happy Paws Happy Hearts initiative
- It helps young people with disabilities and mental health issues to build their confidence
- A new program from the social enterprise helps participants build employment skills
The 24-year-old, who has autism, has been part of a specialised program at Toowoomba's RSPCA shelter for the past two years.
It works with young people with disabilities and mental health issues to build their confidence, social and work skills.
"There has been a bit of a struggle to find opportunities [before this]," Mr Hensley said.
Through the Happy Paws Happy Hearts initiative, participants such as Mr Hensley are getting hands on at animal shelters to help vulnerable creatures.
While wolves, dolphins and owls are Mr Hensley's animals of choice, he found the next best thing in rescue animals such as puppy Hugo.
And it's working wonders.
"I've been thankfully able to have that chance that allows me to improve myself in life and as a person in general," he said.
"The instructors have helped with communication … and being able to build new friendships and learn a lot of important life skills."
Building confidence and skills
Happy Paws, which also operates at Wacol near Brisbane and the NSW Hunter Valley, this week launched a revamped program to help participants build employment skills and find job opportunities in the animal care industry.
Deputy chief executive Kellie Ireland said working-aged people with a disability were more than twice as likely to be unemployed than those without a disability.
"Participants work with a trainer and case manager to do things like building a resume … or think about workplace health and safety," she said.
"They might write a resume for a shelter animal, which helps them think about how you position that animal for its forever home.
"Then they go on to write a resume for themselves and it seems a lot less terrifying and a lot more fun if we put it through the lens of the animal care industry."
Ms Ireland said about 70 per cent of the participants from the program had gone on to find further work or volunteer opportunities.
Toowoomba coordinator Bianca Martin said the new program filled a gap for young people who were still figuring out what they wanted to do, but didn't want to go through traditional models of schooling or further study.
"We run animal care and training programs for group participants to come out and learn about animals within the shelter environment," she said.
Charleigh Dyball, 18, went to a flexi school in Toowoomba, and while she said that was helpful, she had her heart set on working with animals.
"Being a part of [the initiative], it's really good," she said.
"We're all learning together."
Mr Hensley said not only had his life changed, but so too had his sister's.
"Not only just from [Elektra's] higher autism, but just being able to feel more comfortable as well," he said.
"She had difficulty being able to interact with people, she has very severe social anxiety, but this program helps her with that."