Yesterday marked my five year anniversary with the SPCA Albrecht Center (formerly Aiken SPCA.) The time has gone by quickly and this seemed like a good opportunity to look back at animal welfare in our community over the past five years and what to expect going forward.

One constant over the past five years has been change. Since I joined the SPCA, only six board members, two staff members and a handful of volunteers remain from the group I first met back in 2007. But this organization is now 77 years old and I’m sure that change has always been something the SPCA has had to adapt to all of these years.

Other changes have been more visible to the public. The most obvious ones are our new facility that I was brought here from Florida to help become a reality and our name change earlier this year. We’ve yet to scratch the surface as to what the new facility will mean to animal welfare in our region.

One earlier change was the rebuilding of our Wire Road shelter. As you may recall, 21 months ago our shelter caught fire, causing us to fully evacuate more than a 100 dogs and cats while we rebuilt. Fortunately, no people or animals were hurt and the vast majority of the dogs and cats evacuated were adopted before the shelter reopened. The support from our community was overwhelming and heartening and is something all of us with the SPCA will never forget.

Collaborations have also played a huge role for the SPCA in the past five years. One of the first ones was renewing a relationship with Aiken County Animal Control after many years that the two shelters operated next door to each other, but it felt like they were worlds apart.

I credit a lot of this to Bobby Arthurs, their new director who assumed his role just after I came to Aiken. Bobby and I work very well together, and over the years we’ve seen the county start a spay and neuter voucher program, a transfer program to other shelters, a volunteer program and a foster program based on their partnership with the SPCA, all of which helps more and more animals each year.

The partnerships with the SPCA have grown to include groups in Edgefield, Allendale, Barnwell, McCormick, Laurens and Saluda counties. Others relationships have begun in Charleston, Charlotte, Savannah and Spartanburg.

Back here in Aiken County, the past five years at the SPCA has led to over 3,500 homeless animals finding new homes after being adopted. Several hundred more have been returned safely to their owners, thanks in part to microchipping and an active lost and found program. Our veterinarians have also performed around 10,000 spay and neuter surgeries in my tenure, which has a big impact on reduced admissions of stray puppies and kittens in area shelters.

Many of these surgeries were performed at a reduced rate for our various animal welfare partners such as Molly’s Militia, Equine Rescue of Aiken, McCormick County Humane Society, Aiken County Animal Control and Aiken Cat Alliance. Having access to our services at a low rate allows these great groups to help even more animals than we could have helped in our individual shelter.

But without a doubt, the biggest change over the past five years was our capital campaign to build a facility we all can be proud of. Raising money is always tough, but taking on something like this during a recession caused sleepless nights for all involved.

Fortunately, we were blessed to earn the support of hundreds of animal lovers in our community and beyond. Once they saw the planning and work that went into this effort, they overwhelmed us with support and now, after being opened a month, adoptions are up and more animals are being saved.

The past five years have been important in our history, for sure. With our new facility in place and big plans for the future, we are all very excited to see how many more animals we can help in the next five years and beyond.

Gary Willoughby is the president and CEO for SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare.