For 10 years, the Cummings School veterinary clinic at Worcester Tech has provided low-cost services to pets from underserved households
A decade has passed since Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University collaborated with Worcester Technical High School (WTHS) to open a teaching veterinary clinic where students could learn while providing care to underserved local populations. The success of Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic resides in the 20,000 pets and their owners, the hundreds of WTHS students and Cummings School veterinary students who have experienced the care provided. Several clinics and programs have followed Tufts’ example to serve pets and pet owners in their Bay State communities.
Training the Next Generation
Since Tufts at Tech opened, the WTHS veterinary assisting program has become one of the three most popular among its 23 vocational options, according to Patty Suomala, WTHS director of career and technical education and a former veterinary technician at Tufts.
Students assist pets and their owners alongside Cummings School faculty members and fourth-year veterinary students on their clinical rotations. Among more than 100 students eager to join the veterinary assistant program at WTHS annually, 20–25 are welcomed. “We are always looking to add more seats because there’s such a demand,” Suomala shares. “It also fills a need in the community.”
“Ninety percent of our clients make $25,000 or less,” says Tufts at Tech Clinical Director Greg Wolfus, V98, who was hired by Cummings School to open the clinic. “Our target 10 years ago was to serve 200–300 [pets] a month. We see 500–600 monthly.” Clients must undergo a means test—showing proof of government assistance, for example—to qualify for care.
WTHS students spend the first two years in the classroom, learning anatomy, medical terminology, and client communication skills, before applying them in the clinic during their last two years of high school.
WTHS students have also served as interpreters for the 20 percent of clients who speak Spanish, a vital part of the program, according to Wolfus. “The high school students were hesitant to help translate at first, but once they realized they could help communicate to better serve our clients and their pets, they realized what an incredible tool they have,” he shares.
Students completing the program can earn Approved Veterinary Assistant (AVA) certification, and explore careers as veterinary technicians, veterinarians, or other options. Suomala explains, “It’s amazing for our students to work with veterinary students, because it helps them to make a connection and realize that they can do this. I think it’s the most powerful piece of our model.”
WTHS graduates Sarah Tainter and Maria Pelegrin both earned AVA certification after working at Tufts at Tech, where they now serve as AVAs. A 2016 graduate, Tainter admits, “I started as a shy 15-year-old afraid to talk to vet students, veterinarians, and clients and Tufts helped me become a confident, outgoing, and outspoken person.”
Pelegrin has served Tufts as Tech as a bilingual vet assistant since fall 2020. “I have grown tremendously as an assistant and have gotten so much support from our doctors and staff,” she acknowledges. “My roles include restraining, taking blood samples, giving vaccines, monitoring anesthesia, surgery prep and recovery, client communication, translating for our Spanish speaking clients, and helping D.V.M. students. It’s amazing to be a part of a team that helps provide families with affordable care for their pets. I also enjoy meeting students and seeing them grow throughout their rotations with us.”
Tainter’s responsibilities include administering anesthesia and helping with appointments and reception. “My life has come full circle, working at the high school I attended, doing what I love, and mentoring students. It’s extremely rewarding to see them benefit from the Tufts at Tech experience just like I did.”
A Decade of Growth
When Tufts at Tech began, Wolfus was the lone veterinarian and WTHS had two teachers dedicated to the program. Today, there are four WTHS teachers, three veterinarians, and several vet volunteers, three certified vet technicians (CVTs), two vet assistants, a receptionist, 10 veterinary students and up to a dozen WTHS students at any time.
Clinical Assistant Professor Jenni Grady, V12, has been integral to the growth of Tufts at Tech. “She is organized, detailed, and has taken on so much for the program,” Wolfus says.
Grady credits the unique leadership style of Wolfus as key to the clinic’s success. “He treats the veterinary students as colleagues and trusts them to be the primary clinicians on cases with just background support,” she says. “Also, our passionate and hard-working veterinary and high school students are the backbone of the clinic. Tufts at Tech is the most unique clinical environment I’ve ever worked in. I learn something every day.”
Yuki Nakayama, V14, assistant clinical professor for community medicine, has volunteered at Tufts at Tech since she graduated from Cummings School. Now a full-time faculty member, Nakayama helped Wolfus and dental technician Kate Zukowski, CVT, start the Cummings School’s dental course. “I love teaching and working with students, particularly in providing primary level care to animals,” said Nakayama. “Students are the doctors at Tufts at Tech.”
The CVTs are Clinic Supervisor Pam Houde, Danielle Wolfus, and Zukowski, the first dental specialty technician in New England, says Wolfus. Community Medicine Resident Kayla Sample and intern Jonathan Elbaz are other key Tufts at Tech staff members.
A Blueprint for Success
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of Tufts at Tech is the example it set for staff and veterinary students to help expand the volume of similar veterinary services available at other regional locations.
Angell Animal Medical Center and Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford, Massachusetts, collaborated to open Angell at Nashoba in 2016. Clinical Director Laurence Sawyer, V99, used Tufts at Tech as a model to create a similar clinic, which has welcomed several Cummings School alumni as interns and boasts Mary Kate O’Toole, V21, and Taylor Reale, V21, among its staff.
Wolfus worked with former WTHS Principal Sheila Harrity to establish Monty Tech Veterinary Clinic in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in 2019. After becoming Superintendent/Director of Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, Harrity looked to add veterinary science to its offerings. Sample, a former intern, served as the clinic’s medical director for several years before returning to Tufts at Tech. Jennifer Harackiewicz, V16, is the clinic’s current medical director.
Sample confirmed the success of the Tufts at Tech model. “Partnering veterinary students with high school students for a one-on-one mentorship allows them to learn and grow together,” she contends. “After seeing Tufts at Tech operate first-hand, I knew this model could be successful anywhere. During my time at Monty Tech, veterinary science became one of the most popular shops among the high school students and the clients loved coming there.”
Sample shared her reasoning to return to Tufts at Tech. “I was honored to help share this model with other programs. I returned to Tufts at Tech to continue learning and strengthening my clinical skills in an American Board of Veterinary Practitioners residency program to become boarded in canine and feline medicine. By completing this residency, I hope to continue sharing this model with more programs to further increase access to care.”
In December 2019, a third venue, Angell at Essex opened. Angell Animal Medical Center partnered with Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School in Danvers, Massachusetts, to create another affordable clinic to serve pets from underserved areas. Delaney Douglas, V21, is among its staff.
“Tufts at Tech is a part of the clinical rotations for Cummings School four-year students, and the Angell and Monty Tech programs are elective locations,” Wolfus shares.
In addition to these programs, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) has teamed with Angell to offer reduced-cost veterinary services at three Bay State locations in Barnstable, Boston, and Methuen.
Former Tufts at Tech students and/or veterinary students have also worked at other affordable care veterinary programs, including Potter League Pets In Need in Providence, Rhode Island, and Second Chance Animal Services, with four Massachusetts locations.
Kyle Brenner served as WTHS director of career and technical education when Tufts at Tech opened, and later as the high school’s principal. In 2020, he became superintendent of Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School in Charlton, Massachusetts, which has since partnered with Second Chance to add a veterinary/animal science program.
Founding Contributors and Sponsors
Ten years later, the branches of Tufts at Tech’s family tree continue to expand, thanks to the vision and collaborative efforts of its pioneering founders, who helped to bring this innovative approach of affordable veterinary care to fruition.
From WTHS, former Board of Advisors Chair Ted Coghlin, Principal Harrity, Brenner, and teacher Christina Melvin were key contributors.
At Cummings School, former Dean Deborah Kochevar, VG21; professors Emily McCobb, V00; Elizabeth Rozanski, and John Rush; and former department chairs John Berg and Nicholas Frank, teamed with Wolfus to lead its efforts.
Tufts at Tech also owes its success to the generosity of numerous supporters. “The donations, sponsorships, and collaborations with so many thoughtful individuals and organizations has enabled Tufts at Tech to grow and thrive,” Wolfus says.
After a decade of service in a 2,200-square-foot space, Wolfus hopes to start an expansion soon. “We hope to remodel the clinic into a more suitable space for our present and future needs,” he shares.
Dean Cribb is eager to collaborate on improving Tufts at Tech. “We plan to work with our partners to upgrade the facilities to better serve our clients and our students,” he says. “Tufts at Tech will be a key program in the years ahead.”
Grady adds, “With more space to help more pets, we could increase our surgical and dentistry space, offer more procedures, and provide our students more opportunities to practice these skills before they graduate.”
Wolfus summarizes, “My goal is to continue to create both high school student graduates and veterinarian student graduates who go out into the world and remodel and remake community service or clinics in their environment.”