Teen volunteer wins $50,000 grant for Ferndale Cat Shelter

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published December 25, 2020

 Sydney Hertzberg, 13, volunteers at the Ferndale Cat Shelter, where she adopted her cat, Mr. Mittens.

Sydney Hertzberg, 13, volunteers at the Ferndale Cat Shelter, where she adopted her cat, Mr. Mittens.

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 Hertzberg's essay about her life with Mr. Mittens won the Ferndale Cat Shelter a $50,000 grant from the Petco Foundation’s Holiday Wishes program.

Hertzberg's essay about her life with Mr. Mittens won the Ferndale Cat Shelter a $50,000 grant from the Petco Foundation’s Holiday Wishes program.

 Hertzberg felt a strong connection with Mr. Mittens during her first night of fostering him and decided that she would keep the kitten.

Hertzberg felt a strong connection with Mr. Mittens during her first night of fostering him and decided that she would keep the kitten.

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FERNDALE — The efforts of one young teen have led to a local cat shelter receiving tens of thousands of dollars in grant funding.

Sydney Hertzberg is a 13-year-old girl from Birmingham who has been volunteering at the Ferndale Cat Shelter and its Catfé Lounge for more than a year. Last September, she decided to foster her first cat, who had been born only three weeks prior. His name: Mr. Mittens.

Hertzberg was supposed to foster Mr. Mittens until he found his forever home. It was her first night with the newborn kitten, however, when she decided that she was keeping the cat for herself.

“I just felt a really strong bond with him,” she said. “I just felt a connection to him. When he came in, he was so young that he needed to be bottle fed. So getting to take care of something really boosted my spirits, and he loved this specific pair of sweatpants (I wore). … He loved crawling in them and it just felt comforting.”

Hertzberg officially adopted Mr. Mittens on Oct. 6, 2019, and the pair have spent every day together since, taking walks around the neighborhood and cuddling in their home.

What the young Birmingham teen didn’t know, but soon realized, was just how important Mr. Mittens was to her.

Hertzberg suffers from a condition called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS. She also has a separate connective tissue disorder. These conditions cause her to overheat easily, pass out if she stands up too quickly, and various other problems.

The combination of these two diseases creates pain for Hertzberg, said her mother, Julie. She said that many people actually don’t believe the pain her daughter goes through, because she looks fine on the outside.

“It’s like that history of being told your whole life, ‘Oh you’re fine, you’re making this up,’” Julie Hertzberg said. “That point of always being judged and being told you’re making it up, it’s really made her empathetic towards people and animals.”

That empathy led Sydney Hertzberg to the Ferndale Cat Shelter, where she volunteers and has continued to help out as the world moved into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve always felt a connection to cats, and when I saw that the Ferndale Cat Shelter was a no-kill cat shelter, which is one of my huge things I like to advocate for, I was really happy, and it was also one of the only lounges for cats that don’t have to be in actual shelters. They can be in homes or they can be in an awesome space. That was definitely a big thing for me and, overall, when I first saw it, I just fell in love immediately,” she said.

Like many businesses during the pandemic, Ferndale Cat Shelter Executive Director Deanne Iovan said, the shelter has been running on empty. It’s Catfé, a big source of revenue, has been closed half the year, but the shelter still has been accepting cats and doing adoptions. Add to it that many municipal shelters were closed for part of the year, and FCS actually doubled the number of cats and kittens that it took in this year.

“It’s just crazy because we had half the revenue that we would normally have, and we had twice as many cats,” she said.

Sydney Hertzberg knew the cat shelter she’d come to love was struggling, and so she looked to do something about it. In a stroke of luck, she was informed about the Petco Foundation’s Holiday Wishes grant program, which awards animal welfare foundations with funding anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000.

Hertzberg said she really wanted to make a difference for FCS.

“During COVID, it’s really hard to get funding as much, and now that we’re down on income because no one can visit us, $50,000 or $100,000, even $1,000 or $5,000 would do good for us, and I just wrote the essay in hopes to raise even a bit of money to help with the funding.”

The essay Hertzberg wrote, which she did when she was 12, detailed the pain she suffers from, but also meeting Mr. Mittens and how her furry new friend helped relieve her pain when she needed it most.

Iovan said reading the essay brought her to tears.

“Her mom was always telling me how important it was for Sydney to be involved in our rescue and to help out at the Catfé and to foster kitties, but reading it and her story just really made it more impactful to me and how important it was for her,” she said. “That’s why I go to work every day, is people like (Sydney) and people that feel that kind of power of these relationships they form with these animals.”

Julie Hertzberg said her daughter’s writing of the essay showed how selfless and courageous she was in telling her story, as it was the first time she ever disclosed her medical condition to anybody outside her family.

“When I recognized that at the time that she submitted the essay that it was going to a national foundation … I said to her, ‘This could become public if you are lucky enough to win this competition. Are you prepared for that?’ And her answer back to me was, ‘If it helps save lives, then it’s worth it to me, Mom,’” she said. “And so that’s something that really demonstrated just a lot of compassion on her part.”

The family heard back Dec. 11 that not only had Hertzberg’s essay won an award for the shelter, but it had won $50,000.

“My parents actually blindfolded me. I had absolutely no idea what was going on. They took me upstairs, sat me in a chair and there were tons of people on there and I recognized them all on a Zoom, and there was a couple minutes of talking before they presented us with a $50,000 check, which was absolutely crazy,” the young Hertzberg said.

“My mouth dropped to the floor (at the sight of the check). It was absolutely nuts.”

Getting the grant funding now was timely for the shelter, said Iovan. While she doesn’t know how it will be used yet, she does know they want to use the money to create more resources for the cats and kittens.

“This grant couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s just the perfect way to end a really crappy year, and it’s just gonna help us continue doing what we do,” she said.

“I just love ... Sydney so much,” she continued. “I don’t want to call her a kid, because she’s almost like a young adult. She’s very smart and wise and has very deep feelings, and I look forward to watching her grow up and what she does with her life and who she becomes, because she’s just a really amazing person.”

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