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UNM grad named CNN Hero of the Year for his work as a street vet

University Showcase 02/20 8:30a: On this episode University of New Mexico graduate Dr. Kwane Stewart talks about the organization he created, Project Street Vet. Stewart offers judgement-free veterinary care to the pets of people who are unhoused. His organization has grown from his solo, volunteer effort in one California city to multiple cities and several other states. He was named the 2023 CNN Hero of the Year, which also comes with cash prizes to help him expand his work.

KWANE STEWART: I've always loved animals. And I think that's probably a prerequisite I'm sure for a lot of people. But I also had an aptitude for science. I struggled in other subjects a little bit it. I figured out later, I was dyslexic. And that was probably why, but science came easy to me as a kid, and I see this in my own children when they're inspired by something, and you know, they can see far enough in their future. That's what they want to be or that's what they want to do. And it's just a matter of chasing it down. I wasn't the best, like I said, in chasing it down. I was a little bit of a slacker and I ran with this group of friends that did not have school as a priority at all in high school. So I didn't graduate high school with the best grades, and I picked it up in college. But once I got to vet school, it all fell into place.

KUNM: Did you have animals growing up?

STEWART: Always. Yes, yes. My mother always had animals around. There was dogs and cats and horses and chickens and peacocks. And for a while she had a working cattle ranch in New Mexico. So I was very familiar with all types of animals.

KUNM: You went to veterinary school in Colorado, right, we don't have a vet school in New Mexico. And then you worked at a clinic in Northern California?

STEWART: I graduated vet school in Fort Collins and promptly drove my old busted Mustang straight to San Diego. I always wanted -- the other part of the dream was to practice near a beach or on a beach and be a vet. That was a vision I held in my head for years, you know, you need again, you need something -- it's that carrot, something as a dangle there in front of you for a while that you chase, you run after and I just had this vision during those long nights of studying in vet school that I was going to be a vet one day on a sunny beach. And so when I graduated, I drove straight to San Diego, didn't have a job and found work. And yeah, the rest is history. My life started there.

What took me to northern California and those memories are nostalgic. It was the toughest time of my entire career moving to Modesto, California. And I took on the role of county veterinarian, really just a shelter vet. You run the county -- the municipal shelter. And it was during the recession, my five years there timed out almost exactly over the recession 2007 to 2012. And so, Modesto for those that don't know, central Northern California, it's already a pretty depressed area of the state, economically, high crime. And so the recession hits and it's just Ground Zero. It's like a bomb went off, and people are already struggling to pay their rent. And so there's this trickle down effect. When you're unable to buy groceries and pay your rent, well, then you're not taking care of your pets, and people were just dumping their pets, their cats and dogs, at our doorstep. And it was no questions asked to the municipal shelter. And we were just taking in hundreds of animals. We were euthanizing 50 or 60 by 10 a.m. some mornings. And I just had moments where I just thought I was going to quit, not just the shelter, but quit being a vet.

KUNM: I’m sure when you're going into vet school and planning this career, you realized that euthanization would be part of that, but that sounds like this was way off the charts.

STEWART: I don't know that growing up dreaming of being a vet, it’s anything you really you think about daily or it really sinks in what the effect on yourself will be when you perform that act. But then you get to vet school and you have an experience or two with it. And then yes, you get into practice and you're seeing it with some regularity. And then it starts to weigh on you. But yeah, going to the shelter is next level. It's you know, it's on a factor, a multiple of 20, 25. What I'm seeing what I'm doing and yeah, you just you know, I reached this moment where I thought “This isn't what I got into this profession for,” but I also felt like I was in a little bit of a box.

KUNM: How did you get out of that?

STEWART: Well, I stumbled upon this unhoused man outside 7-Eleven This is the origin story for the Street Vet. And this is Day 1 of the Street Vet. I was sitting outside of 7-Eleven -- I recall this very vividly -- sitting in my car and I was rehearsing my resignation letter in my head for the shelter, and just sort of stonefaced staring off in the distance like, you know, when you're just in deep thought. It could have been 30 minutes I was sitting there. It's funny how time passes when you're just you're in this intense moment. I finally snap out of it, I go into 7-Eleven I walk out, there's this homeless man and his dog. And I noticed that his dog had a skin condition, a serious skin condition. And from a distance -- and you do this long enough, you can diagnose things from 10 to 15 feet away, I could tell it was just basic fleas. But when dogs have fleas long enough, it really does damage the skin and destroys the skin. This dog looked like a burn victim on its hind and the skin was red and bumpy. The hair was gone. The dog was miserable. I stepped over to the man. And sadly, I'd seen this guy before and walked right by him before but on this day, for whatever reason, I decided to step over and I introduced myself “I’m Kwane Stewart, I'm a veterinarian, and I see your dog has an issue. And if you're here tomorrow, I'll return with something that should help.” And I did as promised, I returned and it was $3 out of my pocket. Or as I confess now, $3 out of the pocket of the shelter. I was playing a little Robin Hood. I treated the dog. And then I saw the same dog about 12 days later and the dog was transformed. And she came up and greeted me. She was wagging her tail. And the man sitting with a smile himself. And again, a complete reversal because he was just, he was exasperated the first time I saw him, he was desperate for help. This little companion was his life. I saw the same guy. And he's looking up at me with a smile, but also tears in his eyes. And he just said “Thank you for not ignoring me.” And I thought in that moment, I'm going to do more of this. I'm gonna find more people like you. And that was 13 years ago. And I haven't stopped.

KUNM: How did it evolve? Did you start making the rounds in Modesto? Were you just looking for folks?

STEWART: Yes, I remember driving out looking and then parking one day and walking. And then soon after that I hosted a little pop-up clinic. I didn't know what I was doing. I just thought you know, I'll get a fold-out table. I'll go to the soup kitchen. And I would just set it up. And you know, my observation has been when you see unhoused folks in the streets, there's a decent proportion that always have a pet with them. Our census says it's actually about 20%. And so I thought well, if I just park outside, you know, this soup kitchen, I'll get some customers and I just walked down the line anyone holding a pet or with a pet on a leash, I said “When you're done eating step over here, and I'll take a look at your pet and do what I can for free, at no cost.” And before I knew it, I have a line. And I think that day I served about 12 or 13 pets. And it was really inspiring. You know, by this point in my veterinary career, I had been a vet about 14 years. And these moments, including the 7-Eleven encounter, were the most rewarding moments I've ever had in the work I've done.

KUNM: Can you say more about that? Why was it so rewarding?

STEWART: You know, there are there are things we do in our lives that don't come with pay, that have no agenda. And sometimes you're not even sure why you did it or how it happened. But you find yourself in this moment. Typically, it's when you're serving somebody else or helping somebody else. And I think probably very deep in our DNA somewhere there is this chemical reaction that happens on the cellular level that triggers emotions and other neurotransmitters. I'm getting sciency right now, but it trying to explain that, for reasons we probably don't understand there is this emotion behind just the sheer service of helping another human being. I'd never really experienced that before. Prior to that, I'm going into my clinic, I'm doing the work, it's transactional, I'm providing a service, I'm getting paid, I'm providing a service, I'm getting something for it. But in these moments where I find myself doing it for nothing else than wanting to do it, wanting to help another person and their pet, yeah, it was, you know, in some ways, indescribable. I'm doing my best to try and describe it. But still I have moments when I'm interacting with these people after I've treated their pets and maybe in some cases saved their pets life. And they tell me had I never found them, you know, perhaps their pet wouldn't be here.

And I'll encapsulate real quick in this in this story I can tell in 60 seconds because it was probably one of the most enlightening moments for me. When a lady had told me -- this is not too long ago -- this is maybe eight nine months ago. I met her in Skid Row in Los Angeles and she said she had thought about taking her life just a few days prior to me actually stumbling upon her. And she, by this point in her life, had lost the support of her family and Her friends because she was a chronic drug user. And she said this quite openly. And she said, “I've had this addiction for the longest time. I can't crack it. I don't know what to do. People have given up on me and I understand I get it.” But she said the only thing she the only thing that stuck by her side is her pet. And she said, she got real low one night, a few nights ago, she thought about taking her own life. And she looked over at her dog. And her dog looked back at her and she said to herself, “Who's going to feed you in the morning?” She said, “The only reason I'm still here is because of her.” And when I came across them, her dog was sick and needed care. I got her dog into a hospital, and then they were reunited probably two days later. And she just said, “This is my lifeline.” You know obviously, you have a moment like that, it’s more than anything that could ever be said or explains, you feel that inside of you. And then I understand why they're so important to them. And then I'm reminded why I do the work, why I'm inspired to do the work. Even when I have tough days. I know there are people out there who have much, much harder days.

KUNM: How did you decide to start building this up, and making this your life,

STEWART: I don't know, I was sort of building the plane as I flew it, I didn't have a plan. I just knew I would go out and after work occasionally, on weekends, during my free time, I have busy life, you know, I have a family and a kid and all that. And I'm putting in 10 hours a day at the shelter and I'm exhausted, I would just find moments where I could do it. And then it just evolved over time. And what happens is you start to meet some of these folks on the streets and build a little relationship with them, and give them your contact --- and for everybody that I've met the streets, I would give my personal cell phone number -- then they're like my client. So I may not necessarily be going out finding new quote unquote, clients all the time. But I'm building a client base from the ones I've seen who need rechecks, or something else goes wrong, or it's an update for vaccine. So yeah, over time, you just you have a line of people that rely on you.

About six years into it, I found myself at a place where I couldn't afford to do it. Because again, by this point, I had now collected a big group of people, you know, every one or two people I see it's I'm adding to this group of people that I tell them, “You call me if you need anything.” And some of these procedures are expensive, and anyone who owns a pet knows, so you can go in for a dental procedure and it can be upwards $1500 or $2,000, or tumor removal, or there's an injury that needs X-rays. And I was funding all of this out of my own pocket. And I'm a shelter veterinarian, I'm not making the most money, I'm still buried in student loans. I found myself occasionally skipping my student loans to do this work in the streets. And it just hit a point where I knew it wasn't sustainable. So I decided to share it with my brother. And by this point, I had not told anybody by the way, not my friends, not my family, this was my own little secret to go out and do the work. And it was I guess, healing for me or cathartic. I didn't want any negativity either. That's the other thing is I didn't want to share it with someone and have them say, “Why would you do that? They don't deserve to have a pet. Why would you? Why would you support that?” I knew I couldn't hear that. I didn't need to hear that. So, I just didn't tell anybody. But again, it got to the point where I shared it. And my brother said that “You're onto something you gotta share these stories.” My brother’s in film and editing. And he decided to start chronicling some of my work and build out a social media page because that's where life happens. Apparently, I didn't know that as someone…

KUNM: who is out in the real world?

STEWART: Yeah out In the real world actually talking to people it's not virtual. And so yeah, he started to build sort of this persona, online and social world and then we started getting donations, opened a GoFundMe and then we became fairly well-funded and it started to catch the attention of people like yourself, the media press, we greenlit a show called “The Street Vet” in 2018. And my brother made the show. He produced 12 episodes, one season, that got dispersed to 26 countries around the world. By this point in time I had other veterinarians reaching out to me saying “I'd like to do what you do, but I want to do it in my city in my neighborhood.” And then we started developing street teams in other parts of the country. And here we are,

KUNM: Is “The Street Vet” a web series or was it on broadcast?

STEWART: It's a docuseries that aired on broadcast TV, it would broadcast regionally in certain countries or cities. Funny enough, it wasn't picked up in the U.S. and my brother and I, we were stumped by that. Very recently, BYU TV picked it up. So you can see it there as of a year and a half ago. But it's on a cable network. So it's not streaming where everybody can see it. And I'm not sure why, you know, we'd get looks, I remember Netflix, a few others would take a look at it. But I think for Americans, the homeless issue is almost something they want to ignore, but they want solved. It's hard for them, I think, for us, I guess, me included, to see this, day after day on TV, there's like this homeless fatigue. That's what this show is about. Obviously, it was exposing some of the issues in our own country. And I think for a lot of producers, streamers in America, they felt like it wouldn't land well. Other countries, funny enough, they loved it. You know, it was in India and Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and everywhere else but America.

KUNM: I volunteer a Catholic Worker soup kitchen, I see a lot of people are unhoused, or precariously housed with pets, and we give out dog and cat food. I've had conversations with other volunteers. And some of them feel like well, they shouldn't have these pets, they can't even take care of themselves. How do you respond to that?

STEWART: You know, I will admit that I had those same questions prior to doing the work, you know, as a veterinarian, as an animal care professional, I have to ask those questions. Are you in the best position to care for this creature with this? And will it be better off with somebody else? It's a fair question. But what I would say to someone like that is probably that the same answer I'd give to myself 15 years ago. If anyone needs an animal, a pet, a companion like that, it's someone who's struggling. And you probably don't have to go very far back in your own history, if you're a pet lover, and remember a time where perhaps you had a bad breakup and lost your partner, or lost your job, or lost a loved one. And in these hardest moments, sometimes the one thing we can rely on is our pet who gets us through some, perhaps, dark times or very hard moments. For that reason, I'm a strong advocate that for those that want one, and have some wherewithal to care for them, that they should.

Now know that I don't know how to quite describe this, we've all seen that, quote unquote, “crazy homeless person” walking down the street, holding up their pants, screaming at cars probably has a mental issue of some kind. We've all seen that in our cities. Those aren't pet owners, just to let everybody know, that's not your typical pet parent, for someone who's unhoused. To own a pet, you have to keep it together, your pet almost requires of you to keep it together, right? As that lady said, “So I can get up in the morning and feed you and take care of you.” So for what they have, they do a remarkable job of caring for their pets. And I also share this admittedly: I'm away 18 hours a day sometimes. But all my dog wants is me. They sit and pine for me, they peel back the curtains listening for the cars, they hear the garage door, they get excited. All your dog wants is you. They care very little about a huge backyard and nice furniture, and how much money you have. They want to spend time with you. And that's what these folks deliver in spades. That's what they give their pet that I don't actually give my own pet. Again, the area they're short on his resources, and I get that sometimes struggle to feed their dog, of course, get medical. But if I can step in and provide that, then then we've closed that circle.

KUNM: How do you gain people's trust when you approach them?

STEWART: You know I don't have a problem approaching and speaking with people, I guess it's come natural to me. That's my dad has always been like that he'll go up at a gas station, just introduce himself to the guy across from him pumping gas. Say “Hi, I'm John and how are you doing?” And I was raised watching that my whole life. So it never felt awkward for me. I go up, I sort of keep my distance initially announced who I am. Sometimes it was a surprise. Know that I am in Skid Row, sort of weaving through alleys and streets and you know, little corners and I'll sometimes turn a corner and right behind a dumpster there’s somebody living with their dog. And it almost startles them and I just sort of back up and say “I'm sorry, I you know, my name is Kwane Stewart. I'm a veterinarian, and I walk the streets and I look for pets that need care and I deliver free care.” And I just ask them, Is it okay if I take a look? And 99% of the time they say “Sure.” At first maybe a little reticent? Like “Are you really a vet or what are you going to do or are you going to take my dog if they don't look well?” I can see those questions swirling in their head, but I just take out my stethoscope and I take to a knee and I just do what I do in my clinic. And it's a full exam. And as I'm going through the exam, I'm explaining what I'm seeing and feeling and asking questions to getting a history. And then within a few minutes, they know it's legitimate and then we're just, you can just, I might under a traffic light. But in that moment, almost like a CGI movie, you can just see these white walls come up and this exam table and I'm suddenly just in a clinic setting, and I'm treating them like any other client.

KUNM: Do people ever resist your medical advice?

STEWART: Sure. In that instance, it's no different than any pet parents. A lot of people are resistant to getting their dogs neutered, spayed, or sometimes taking my advice on what they should do for care. And I will say, I think because I'm giving free care. And I'm offering free medications and free surgery if necessary, I get a lot more compliance, which is great. And I think even on the spay and neuter front, when I'm strongly suggesting it should be done, as I always do, I usually do get more compliance than I do my paying clients really

KUNM: Interesting. Yeah, I give them dog food at the soup kitchen. But I said, you know, there's a big nonprofit shelter nearby, you can sign up for getting free dog food twice a week, and they've said, “Yeah, I don't want to go there. Because I can't get the card to get the food unless I agree to fix my dog. And I want my friends to have puppies and get what I got.”

STEWART: Yeah,I hear that a lot. But I hear that in clinic, too. “I want my dog to experience, you know, have giving birth and having puppies.” So when they shoot back with that, I say, “Well, you know, your dog will live longer if they're fixed, you know, you're less likely to lose your dog if they're fixed. Dogs that are unfixed or a neutered, they run off, they find females in heat, they're more likely to get hit by a car. If you value your dog, then getting them neutered could be the best thing for him.” So when I shoot at it from a medical perspective, then again, you can see like the wheels turning and you know, I let them know, there's no pressure, I'm not here to pressure you into doing something you don't want to do no different than anybody else. But if you do want to do it, we will cover the costs. And we'll make sure it's done right. And it's a very safe procedure. I explain the safety part of it, the anesthesia. And again, usually I get most people saying yes.

KUNM: You mentioned you've started this on your own, but now you have a nonprofit, you have other volunteers and staff and you work in several cities. Is that right?

STEWART: I work up and down California. I'm only licensed in California. I now have, as I said, Street Vet teams, as we call them in multiple cities. So we're in San Diego, Los Angeles, we're in the Bay Area. But then I have veterinarians doing the same thing in Atlanta, Orlando, DC, in New York City.

KUNM: And so are people reaching out to you from other cities and ask "How do I start doing this?"

STEWART: Yeah, yeah, that's how it's growing. It's completely organic. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Because someone reaching out to me has the passion to do it. And that's what this this role requires. It's not paid, everyone volunteers, you have to want to do it, you want to have to believe you can make a difference. The one thing I've tried to share with anybody who's interested in helping, despite having done this work, for many years, as I had, you may just discover a part of yourself you never knew existed, or experience or feel away that you never knew that you could, just like I did that day.

KUNM: Those are all my questions unless you want to add anything I didn't touch on.

STEWART: You got me all worked up on a couple of those. Some of the stories are very touching. It's hard not to sort of take on, or wear was it word I use, wear some of what you're seeing back home with you sitting at the dinner table with my family, for example, and not have it on you for better or worse when you're observing other human beings suffering in the state of suffering. And it's not just being out of a home. When they're dealing with mental issues, PTSD, childhood trauma, drug issues, you see this and on top of that, they have no family or friends. They have no belongings. And you experience this time and time again, it is hard. I do have my moments. But I also have really big victories. And someone asked me once “Does this take a lot out of you?” And as I just describe to you yeah, you can imagine it does. But it also puts a lot in me.

KUNM: Do you want to keep doing it?

STEWART: I do. And I will. You know, 26 years into it, there's still a fire there. I now have four kids. And I feel like I'm sort of on the back nine of my career. But there is something to this work and more than anything, doing the work has now inspired others. So I’m not a one man band, by extension, I'm everywhere, or I'm in many more places. And if I want that, to keep growing, I still have to sort of be at the front of this. I

KUNM: I was curious if you have a sense if people donors and other supporters have come out who maybe would not necessarily get involved in funding things around homelessness, but something about the pets speaks to them?

STEWART: Yeah, we have observed that, and people even said that, that, you know, if not for you serving the needs of this animal, I probably wouldn't make this donation or support your organization, but it's the animals that I want to see better or treated or help. And that's fine. You know, I don't have any negative response to that. If I have a moment with a big donor who shares that, then I'll share my perspective, just to give them some insights like I just did with you. It's easy to judge these people at times. But when you get to know some of them, when you've done this work for a while, you realize that, you know, we've all fallen, we've all dug ourselves a little hole, and trapped ourselves in it. And I've been there myself, and at least for me, if not for the support of some really special people -- my parents, my brother, some close friends I've had for years -- maybe I'd still be sitting in that hole. So it's easy when you're on the outside looking in to say that or when you're at the top of the mountain, but tumble down and then see if you're gonna say or think the same thing.

KUNM: Yes. Someone once said to me, we always ask what's the matter with you instead of saying what happened to you?

STEWART: Yeah, so I don't see these people as homeless, I see these people who need a helping hand and who hasn't at some point in their life?

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.