It's a mild February morning, and a dozen people are hammering wire to wood, building a fence in a grassy backyard off Ashe Street in east Durham. The fence builders are from the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, an animal welfare and community outreach organization founded in 2008.
Lori Hensley, a woman with a warm demeanor and infectious energy, is overseeing the build, accompanied by the five pit bulls that will live in individual compartments within the fence's confines after it is built.
"The neighbors tell each other about Mrs. Lori," says Derrick Scott, who owns both the dogs and the property. Neighbors to the left and right of his home also have these fences in their yards. "That's how you know Mrs. Lori will be there for you."
Previous Citizen Award winner Amanda Arrington started the coalition, which grew out of work by her and others to pass an ordinance in Durham County outlawing unattended tethered dogs.
It has evolved into a one-stop services provider for dog owners who need help. Coalition volunteers will build a fence for dog owners on the condition that they spay or neuter their pets. The group donates food to its clients, covers vaccinations and veterinary care, transports dogs to the vet, provides straw in the winter and tarps for shade in the summer, and gives owners new leashes and collars.
Arrington calls it "a comprehensive approach to keeping owners and their dogs together."
Hensley, who met Arrington at a party in 2007, has been with the coalition since its inception. She's held the role of director of operations since 2010. Hensley manages the business side, including applying for grants and planning fund-raisers, engaging clients and donors, and organizing fence builds.
Hensley describes the coalition's evolution as being "a lot of trial and error."
"For example, in 2008 we might have built a big fence for all five of these dogs, thinking this will be great, they can all play together," she says. "And we've learned they probably can play together. But if they can't, it's not going to go well." Hence, the individual compartments.
Hensley says that, over the past eight years, the coalition has unchained 1,134 dogs and provided spay/neuter services to 2,075 dogs in Durham. It now has roughly seven hundred clients. Building relationships with the members of the community that the coalition serves, Hensley and Arrington say, is just as important as the animal-welfare aspect.
"People who live here don't really have access to resources you and I have and take for granted," Hensley says. "They have no access to getting what they need to help their pets. If one of Derrick's dogs gets really sick and his car is broken down, he can't put it on the city bus. What's he going to do? So we bring the services here, because we think that poverty's not a measure of how much you love your pet."
Under Hensley's guidance, coalition chapters have popped up in Wake and Orange counties as well. Hensley oversees these chapters, though other volunteers run their day-to-day operations. And similar models have popped up in cities across the country, including Portland and Nashville, though they are not affiliated with the coalition, which was the first of its kind in the country.
Last year, Hensley accepted the ASPCA's national Henry Bergh Award for her work on behalf of animals and communities.
"The work is very gratifying because within a couple of hours you're making a huge difference in the lives of the dogs," Hensley says. "Amanda and I talk about when we started nine years ago, we would drive into the neighborhood and see roaming dogs, pregnant chained dogs, dogs everywhere. And now it's a different scene. It's very rewarding to still be here and to see a huge difference in the community, a change in landscape with regard to pet care."