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She reigns over cats and dogs

Alice Calabrese has a nearly $7 million budget to oversee and a major expansion project in the works, but at the moment she will have to do it from outside her office.

The president and CEO of Lollypop Farm, formally known as the Humane Society of Rochester and Monroe County PCA Inc., has leased out her office to a former feral cat that is nursing a litter of kittens underneath a chair. “Normally they stay inside the fence I’ve put up,” Calabrese says, “but it looks like they found a way out, and I’m not going to disturb them.”

Calabrese often takes a hands-on role at the organization, offering her first-floor office as something of a spillover when animal care rooms are filled. Though quarters can sometimes get tight with the tens of thousands of animals taken in each year, Calabrese has helped lead Lollypop Farm into a period of massive expansion during her 12-year tenure as president and her 21 years overall with the organization.

It has grown from a place with 35 employees when she started, squeezed into a 20,000-square-foot facility that Calabrese herself says could be a bit depressing, into a 57,000-square-foot site with 97 employees, hundreds of volunteers and more expansion ahead.

There are still plenty of challenges, Calabrese says, from finding sources of revenue to cover the expanding operations to aiding other regional shelters to sometimes even finding a quiet corner of the campus for a mother cat to nurse her kittens. But she says all of these challenges are met through the organization’s strengths, which include a volunteer base that numbers more than 900. “It’s really the people who come here every day that keep us going,” she says.

Path to Lollypop Farm
Calabrese started her career in the banking world, working her way through a management program at CitiBank. She started in New York City and transferred to Rochester when she enrolled in the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester and continued working for the bank.

But as her career progressed, Calabrese began to feel pulled to a different type of work.

“I was getting up in the morning and going to work feeling like I wanted to accomplish more, so I started to look at non-profit organizations,” she says.

A colleague from the bank mentioned that Lollypop Farm was looking to hire a development director, which sounded like a good fit for Calabrese given her experience in finance. She landed the job, which at the time included leading a capital campaign for the organization’s first major expansion.

“At the time we had a 20,000-square-foot building and 35 people on staff but were looking to grow into a new space that would be much friendlier for people to visit,” she says.

The work was often challenging but a perfect fit for Calabrese, who says she has had a lifelong love of animals.

“I was the kid bringing the half-dead mouse back to my mother and asking her, ‘Why can’t we keep it in the house?’” she recalls. “My mother let me keep it in the garage in a shoebox with some bedding, and overnight it had a miraculous recovery and chewed its way out. It was probably a good thing she didn’t let me keep it in the house.”

Calabrese is still an animal lover today, with a number of pets at her home in Pittsford, including her dog Bella, who accompanies her to work each day.

In addition to animals, Calabrese enjoys hiking and cooking and watching her 12-year-old son Chris play lacrosse.

Calabrese’s professional background in banking has been a great boost to Lollypop Farm, especially as it expands, says Diane McCue, the organization’s chairwoman.

“She is very budget-conscious and operations-conscious, and runs it like a business,” McCue says. “She’s got a great combination of being able to bring a strong financial focus while keeping an enormous passion for animals and people.”

Mike Millard, a longtime donor who has worked with Calabrese since she started with the organization, says she has done a fantastic job of bringing together stakeholders from across the region to further Lollypop Farm.

“She’s done such a great job with volunteers, media and even local police working together with us,” he says. “That’s allowed us to expand our services where we can take care of distressed animals from across the region.”

Continued growth
The new space that came at the start of her tenure was transformative for Lollypop Farm, Calabrese recalls. The shelter had not been particularly visitor-friendly, she says, with spaces that made it difficult for potential adoptees to interact with animals.

The organization has continued to make strides toward better serving animals and the people who adopt them, Calabrese notes. She credits the organization’s board of directors for providing the leadership to allow Lollypop Farm to grow along with these needs.

“We had a really visionary board then and still do now,” she says. “Their hearts are huge and they’re really smart people who understand the community and have a vision of how we can be better.”

Calabrese also has overseen the organization’s largest expansion, a capital campaign that started in 2009 and raised close to $6 million for renovation and construction of new facilities to house and care for animals. Known as Unleash the Dream Capital Campaign of Lollypop Farm, projects included a new veterinary clinic with expanded capacity for surgeries along with new exam, pre-operative and recovery spaces. The expansion also included a 7,415-square-foot training wing for school, community and volunteer training programs.

The second phase of the project included a 3,500-square-foot space for cats that features colony housing and porches where the public can interact with adoptable cats.

The space has not only made adoptions easier, but also allowed Lollypop Farm to serve as a regionwide partner with smaller shelters that are unable to keep up with their growing needs.

“We face a big challenge in the region as a lot of shelters are becoming closed admissions, or won’t allow every pet in all the time,” Calabrese says. “We are open admissions so we take in any pet from anywhere all the time, and as a result we are seeing a lot of animals come in from farther away.”

There is still one final part of the expansion project to come. Calabrese says the plan originally included a rehabilitation barn for horses that had been abused or needed socializing, but the cost made it too difficult to include.

“We were working with a consultant who said it would just be too expensive to include that in the original expansion,” Calabrese says. “And as we moved along in the project and it got bigger and bigger, as capital projects tend to do, we were grateful that we cut that out of it.”

But the project is now underway, offering a new resource for area horses and a cost-saving for Lollypop Farm.

“Up until now, we didn’t have a great spot to train horses and we had to send them out to trainers to work with, which could get very expensive,” she says. “Now we can do it right here and with our own staff. This is a very important function for those horses—it’s not just about giving them politeness and manners but also building up muscle, so it’s a very important step in getting them adopted.”

While adoption services are important at Lollypop Farm, so are preventative efforts. The organization works to prevent animal issues wherever it can. Lollypop Farms offers many services to income-qualified animal owners, including vaccinations and spaying and neutering. They also run a call-in help line for pet owners in need of assistance.

“Our first position is to help people with whatever pet problems they have, so they don’t end up bringing them to a shelter,” Calabrese says. “If we can provide pet food or spay or neuter service, or advice on where to get a pet-friendly apartment, we try to get in front of those issues so they’re not putting a dog or cat in the car and coming out here. Once they get here, the decision is made and it’s usually not un-doable.”

There is also the challenge of running a nearly $7 million operation that is heavily reliant on people. Calabrese notes the bulk of the organization’s budget is payroll, with a labor-intensive operation that sometimes involves round-the-clock work.

Calabrese recalls one emergency call she received late on a holiday weekend.

“We got a call from police in Wayne County at about 8 o’clock at night just before Labor Day,” she recalls. “The animal cruelty officer said they had about 12 dogs they had taken from a trailer and the shelter there didn’t have a place for them, and they needed to go somewhere that night. I tried to ask how bad it was, and it turned out really bad.

“So I called in some staff and they came in at 9 o’clock to meet the dogs when they came in. They were full of poop and fleas, but everyone just went to work and didn’t say a word.”

Calabrese says the story epitomizes the work of Lollypop Farm, an intensive and often thankless task carried out by a dedicated and caring group of people.

“This is really a place that runs on the hard work and love of all the people who come here every day,” she says. “It’s because of them that we keep running.”

Alice Calabrese
Position: CEO, president of Lollypop Farm, Humane Society of Rochester and Monroe County PCA Inc.
Age: Not given
Education: B.A. in economics and English, the University of Rochester, 1984; MBA, Simon Business School at UR, 1988
Family: Son Chris, 12
Residence: Pittsford
Activities: Hiking, cooking
Quote: “I was the kid bringing the half-dead mouse back to my mother and asking her, ‘Why can’t we keep it in the house?’ My mother let me keep it in the garage in a shoebox with some bedding, and overnight it had a miraculous recovery and chewed its way out. It was probably a good thing she didn’t let me keep it in the house.”

6/10/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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