For over 50 years, local families have been adopting furry friends from South Suburban Humane Society. Since first opening their doors in 1970, SSHS has continuously worked to serve the local communities, and for the past 14 years, CEO Emily Klehm has been at the forefront of the shelter’s efforts.
Klehm began her career with SSHS in 2007 as a volunteer dog walker. With a background in non-profits, development and fundraising, Klehm was invited to join the SSHS Board of Directors. After serving on the board for one year, Klehm applied for and was offered the CEO position.
“I’ve always loved animals and pets. I’ve always had dogs. With my passion for non-profits and what they do for communities, it was sort of a natural fit, and now, I can’t imagine anything else that I could possibly do in life that I’d love as much,” Klehm said.
Currently, SSHS has two buildings: a location in Chicago Heights as well as the Homewood Adoption Center, which opened in 2019. The Chicago Heights shelter has been housed in a converted warehouse and printing facility since 1973. Because this building wasn’t specifically designed to be an animal shelter, Klehm said she and the staff have had many maintenance and efficiency issues over time.
Since the start of her tenure, Klehm has been trying to figure out how to get a new shelter for SSHS. The answer to that question finally came in the fall of 2019.
“When the opportunity from Cook County came along for grant funds to be used to build an animal shelter…that was our dream come true,” said Klehm. “We applied and we were awarded $6 million in 2020.”
Klehm said she, like most of the SSHS staff, has been building the new shelter in her mind for years. After the grant money was awarded, SSHS teamed up with Linden Group Architects out of Orland Park to put together what Klehm calls a “one-stop shop” for animal needs. Under construction since May, the new facility will combine the SSHS shelter and clinics all under one roof.
Located in Matteson, Klehm said the new building is on Central Avenue, right off of I-57 and Lincoln Highway. This accessible location will make it easy to find.
“The portion of the land we’re building on is regular land, but it’s surrounded by protected wetlands so it’s this beautiful, natural scene. There will be a walking path that volunteers can use to take dogs for walks. It’s just a really beautiful space for the pets and people in our community,” Klehm said.
At any given time, the new shelter will be able to accommodate up to 200 pets, and while Klehm said this new shelter is her “crowning achievement,” she still has plenty of other things to be proud of.
Another career highlight of Klehm’s includes the opening of the South Suburban Low-Cost Veterinary Services Clinic, located in Chicago Heights. In 2015, SSHS analyzed the services that were being provided, and noticed that there were gaps in terms of access to affordable pet care. A partnership with Coyne Veterinary Services helped to close that gap.
Klehm explained that sometimes owners are forced to choose between their own healthcare and their pet’s. Often times, these pet owners must make the difficult decision to surrender their pets for “very treatable issues,” and the clinic’s goal is to prevent that.
“My work prior to South Suburban Humane Society was with impoverished communities and helping people in their times of crisis. To me, [opening the low-cost clinic] was like taking two things that I love the most, which is pets and helping people, and put it into one amazing space. We’ve been able to help literally thousands of pet owners to keep their pets,” Klehm said.
Klehm also considers the opening of the Homewood Adoption Center to be a significant career achievement.
“So many volunteers live in Homewood, so many donors live in Homewood, so many adopters live in Homewood. Opening the adoption center was such a natural fit: to be in the place where all of our people are. It has been so successful. We’ve had such an increase in volunteers and our adoptions are so great out of there,” Klehm said, noting that the only blip radar was when COVID hit only six months after the Homewood facility opened its doors.
Klehm said that while dealing with COVID has been extremely difficult, the support of the community was what helped SSHS through. Due to staff safety concerns, the decision to temporarily shut down the Homewood Adoption Center was made at the beginning of the pandemic. A call for fosters was put out to the community, and it was answered in droves.
“We had a line of people…wanting to foster, wanting to help, and it still chokes me up. It really showed my staff that we’re not in this alone. We’ve got the whole community supporting us,” Klehm said.
In turn, Klehm said she hopes SSHS can continue to evolve into what the community needs. While it can be hard to predict what the future holds, Klehm said SSHS has recently seen an increase in calls for emergency crisis fostering and more demand for the shelter’s pet food bank.
Regardless of how the organization evolves over the next few years, Klehm said she wants SSHS to be in the “fabric of the south suburbs” and to be a resource for any community member with any sort of pet need.
Currently, SSHS has a partnership with South Suburban Hospital and Anew: Building Beyond Violence and Abuse, in addition to several other non-profits throughout the south suburbs. Klehm hopes next year, the shelter can resume regularly scheduled free vaccine clinics throughout the spring and summer months and increase partnerships with human service providers.
Of course, in her 14-year tenure with SSHS, Klehm has had her fair share of memorable cases. One of Klehm’s happiest memories is the story of a dog named Frank. Described as a black and white “Heinz 57 mutt,” Frank was a two-year-old dog that had been at SSHS for five or six months.
“He kept getting looked over…no one had really spent any time trying to train [Frank] so he was kind of jumpy, mouthy, and just didn’t show well in the kennel,” Klehm said.
During an adoption event in partnership with PAWS Chicago, Klehm decided to bring Frank along. So many adoptions happened that day…except for Frank. At the end of the day, he was the only dog that hadn’t been adopted. As Klehm and her staff began loading up the van to leave, a couple approached them and inquired about Frank. After a trial walk, the couple adopted Frank, and he now lives in a condo along Lake Michigan. Klehm said the couple still sends photo updates of Frank, and she even has a photo of him running on the beach displayed in her office.
Sadly, not every story is as happy as Frank’s.
“Obviously, the nature of our work is, we get to see the best of humanity but then we get to see the worst of humanity,” Klehm said.
One heartbreaking case that impacted Klehm and many of her staff members was Vinny, a pit bull who had been abused and abandoned along the side of a road in a garbage bag (https://hfchronicle.com/article/2020/feb/22/abused-pit-bull-recovers-hom...). Klehm explained that in Vinny’s case, there was a couple who had broken up. Although Vinny belonged to the husband, he believed he was unable to take the dog to his new living arrangements and Vinny stayed with the wife. Unfortunately, the woman “basically tortured and starved the dog as retribution to her ex-husband,” Klehm explained.
Luckily, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department obtained video image of the woman abandoning Vinny and charges were pressed against her. The man came forward and SSHS was able to help him get Vinny back.
“He still sends us pictures and emails too, and he’s able to give him the life that he should’ve been able to give him from the beginning,” Klehm said.
Because of the continued hard work and dedication of Klehm and the SSHS staff, happy endings like Vinny’s happen every day at both the Chicago Heights and Homewood locations. South Suburban Humane Society is actively seeking new volunteers and fosters! Learn about volunteer opportunities at a Sept. 26 Foster and Volunteer Open House at the Chicago Heights location, 1103 West End Ave. from 1-4 p.m.
“We have a great need for people to come walk dogs, pet cats, answer phones…pretty much anything someone can think of, we have a volunteer opportunity for,” Klehm said.
For information on SSHS visit southsuburbanhumane.org to view the shelter’s supplies and Amazon wish lists, check out the new building’s progress, and to see pets currently available for adoption.