Cindy Scheel, HILLTOP Award winner

As long as Cindy Scheel can remember, she’s had a pet in her life. From cats to rabbits, “I’ve never lived without an animal,” Scheel says.  

“The thing that I love about rabbits is that they have such marvelous personalities,” she says while holding a Multnomah County Animal Services bunny.

“Rabbits usually aren’t treated well. They’re the under-bunny. And it’s always those that have the least who need the most and something about that is super important to me.”

Scheel’s mantra is: It doesn't take much to help a creature blossom and grow. It just takes love, time and patience.

The same is true for humans, she says.

This year, her reputation for putting those words into action has earned her Multnomah County’s HILLTOP Award, an honor for those who have demonstrated tremendous capacity and caring in anti-poverty work.

As the former Executive Director of the Portland Animal Welfare (PAW) Team, an organization that provides outreach and low-cost or free veterinary care to the pets of low-income and homeless people, Scheel worked to keep pets and their owners together.

Under her leadership, the struggling grassroots organization grew to a thriving nationally recognized model in providing veterinary care to the underserved.

“The majority of those who experience homelessness had their pets before they became homeless,” Scheel says. “I’ve had many clients tell me they gave up drugs, they broke the cycle because of their pets. The animals keep us sane. They keep us grounded and give us reason to go on.”

Scheel’s resume includes more than 35 years in nonprofits in fields such as: higher education, social services and fine arts.

In 2012, she was working for the Portland Symphonic Choir. “I literally woke up one day and thought, ‘Am I doing everything I can to change the world?’”  

So she applied for Portland Animal Welfare Team which serves both people who are homeless and animals.

“It was the perfect blend for me,” she smiles.

Her first two years on the job were in an abandoned warehouse with no heat, hot water or bus services in the industrial section of Northwest Portland.

Scheel helped facilitate the move to a more centrally located St. Francis Center in Southeast Portland, a parish with a dining hall and a mission to help the homeless. There, PAW Team staff more easily served homeless couples, families and more who came to the parish for services.

“Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, so it was a wonderful place that understands the connection of the animal, human bond.”

Scheel also created a partner agency network with about 30 organizations – both social services and animal services – such as The Pongo Fund, Multnomah County Animal Services, Transition Projects and JOIN, which helped PAW Team reach more people and pets.

During her more than four years of service at PAW Team, she estimates the organization served as many as 500 pets and their owners per year with vet exams, vaccinations, spay/neuter and other surgical services, prescription medicine, food and supplies.

In 2015, PAW Team was recognized by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, former Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and by the Portland Mercury as “Pet Charity of the Year.”

In 2016, the team was honored by the Henry Schein Care Foundation, a worldwide distributor of medical, dental and veterinary supplies with a medal of excellence.

“I will not ever work in industry that I’m not passionate about,” Scheel says “Life is way too short.”

Today, Scheel spends her time finding ways to helps animals and people at Multnomah County Animal Services.

She lives with her husband in St. Johns and tends to the 18 topiaries that adorn her front and back yards. She and her husband are owned by one cat and two house rabbits.

“When I was growing up, my father always said ‘It’s your job to make the world a better place than when you found it.’ So that’s what I do, or at least what I try to do.”