When Happy Hounds pet day care opened in 2020, the founders had twin visions for the pet daycare facility.

Local residents with intellectual disabilities could work at the daycare center to provide a safe, engaging place for dogs. Not only did the founders believe every dog deserves love, respect, and the opportunity to play, but they felt all people deserved love, respect, and a chance to work.

For nearly three years, the formula has changed lives for both animals and people throughout the area. Now, with the help of a local leadership group, those opportunities are even more enhanced.

“The special needs community and the way (Happy Hounds) is serving them, was really appealing,” said Steve Poston, who volunteered to help the organization. “To be able to help them move what they do up to another level has been rewarding.”

Helping Hounds, a group within this year’s Leadership Johnson County program, has offered its time and resources to make improvements to Happy Hounds’ facility. They’ve built a wheelchair ramp so individuals can better access the doggy daycare. A new obstacle course gives excited pups a way to burn off excess energy.

Projects such as painting the interior and doing small repairs helped spruce up the interior of Happy Hounds.

For group members, their work is a chance to show love both to area pets and individuals with special needs.

“When we got together, we kind of assessed our values as a group. A lot of ours were animal-based or children based, and this encompassed both of those to serve the special needs community and helps them serve their customers with the dogs better,” said Hailey Rose, a member of the group.

On a blustery March morning, members of Helping Hounds pushed through the cold as their construction project came together.

Armed with levels, tape measures, drills and more, they carefully laid out the 28-foot-long ramp extending off the front of the daycare facility. Lumber had been cut, tools were distributed and instructions given.

They were under the direction of Tim Thurston, a Leadership Johnson County board member and operations manager for Servants at Work Inc., which builds ramps for people in need.

Thurston helped guide them through the building process; by the end of the day, the ramp was in place.

“It’s been a really phenomenal learning opportunity for us,” said Jenn Stewart-Burton, a group member. “I think it’s something you can’t put a price on that. We’re out here trying to contribute and do what we can to support this organization.”

Their work throughout the Leadership Johnson County Signature Program led them to this point. Those accepted to the program meet once a month, and each class asks students to focus on a different aspect of leadership.

Organizers try to split the curriculum into two parts: leadership skill enhancement and community awareness. Specific days of the class are divided into categories: media, infrastructure and agriculture, for example.

The centerpiece of the program, though, is the group project. In the first month, participants break off into small groups, with each team required to envision and enact a project that would benefit the community.

Members of Helping Hounds were drawn together by a desire to help animals as well as local residents. They found an ideal pairing with Happy Hounds.

The doggy daycare is an outreach of the Alex and Ali Foundation, nonprofit group founded by Jennifer and Andrew Parker in 2014 with the goal of empowering young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities through meaningful employment opportunities.

The first outreach of the Alex and Ali Foundation was the Hope Gallery, a Bargersville boutique offering local artwork and other handmade items which has transitioned to include an ice cream and sweets shop.

In order to expand opportunities for people, officials came up with the idea of a dog-centric business. Many of the team members who work at Hope Gallery loved animals, and this was a natural extension.

After purchasing a property on West Stop 11 Road and renovating the interior and exterior space, Happy Hounds opened in August 2020.

“This was something that resonated with the whole group. Part of Leadership Johnson County is about connecting with other leaders and finding common causes, and drawing people together for the good of the community,” Poston said.

The group met with Happy Hounds manager Jenny Swim, as well as working with Lorianne Meek, the Happy Hounds chair on the Alex and Ali Foundation board of directors. In speaking with them, the group gained a sense of what the organization needed most to meet its mission.

“We toured their facility and asked them what were some needs they had,” Stewart-Burton said. “They provided us with a list of whole needs, and we went through and figured out what we had the budget for and what we could realistically do.”

Members — Rose, Poston, Stewart-Burton as well as Nicole Caudill, Jenny Deaton, Mikey Huynh, and Kristen Stahlhut — did some work refreshing the facility, including painting and installing protective covering in the garage for when the dogs play indoors.

Plans were drawn up for the ramp, and for the dog agility course.

“They felt like they could use some more enrichment for the dogs that they serve. So we felt that was something we could contribute,” Stewart-Burton said.

With the project complete, Helping Hounds have fulfilled their requirement for Leadership Johnson County in advance of their graduation from the program in May.

But group members suspect their involvement with Happy Hounds will extend well into the future.

“I think probably members of our group are going to stay involved with this organization long-term,” Stewart-Burton said. “It will be hard to come in briefly and exit, and not want to be involved after all we’ve learned and seeing all of the amazing work they’re doing.”