Lilia Castillo Jones was coming off a 30-plus year career in the newspaper industry where she reached the highest levels of management. It was a work that had subsequently run its course.
The Dallas native first came to the Rio Grande Valley in 2012 to become publisher of the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen. She would eventually go from that post to become the president of the El Paso Times. That job proved to be short-lived due to company cutbacks in an industry in rapid decline.
Returning to the Valley in late 2017, Jones contemplated what to do next. She then found a new opportunity in the most unlikely of places. Walk into the Humane Society of Harlingen shelter not far off Wilson Road and there, among the dogs and cats looking for “forever homes,” is Jones, the executive director of the facility.
“‘Why that job?'” she recalled her friends asking. “‘Why would you take that on?'”
Jones answered those questions with the same sort of singular mind and focus the defined her successful newspaper career. She moved quickly in taking the new job in October 2018 to blend what she knew with what needed to be learn.
“It’s an animal shelter, but it’s a business too,” Jones said. “I knew I could apply my business acumen to a shelter.”
She immersed herself in the metrics of her new field. Increasing adoptions and saving more dogs and cats was an immediate priority. The save rate at the shelter then was only 25 percent. To improve that percentage, Jones quickly learned she had to take certain steps. There had to be an increase in the number of volunteers to help care for the animals. Growing the number of foster homes was essential in finding temporary homes. There was a need to boost the transportation and rescue program to send more dogs and cats to new homes up north where they could then be adopted.
By mid-2019, the improvements began to become apparent. The save rate as of June was at 43 percent. It then hit 60 percent that month. The number of animal transportations north for adoption and/or foster homes was also up 40 percent. The intake rate was down 15 percent, meaning Jones and her staff were convincing more people to take home the animals they were bringing home as permanent or foster homes. The volunteer base is up, especially among youths.
Jones credits the improvements to both her hard-working staff and a supportive reorganized board. The community aspect, she said, has also been huge.
Taking a visitor through a tour of the shelter, Jones talked about the different kind of pressure she faces today versus her old management jobs.
“It’s a different kind of pressure because you’re impacting the lives of animals,” she said. “It’s the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.”