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Girl Scout leads effort to rescue, shelter feral cats

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“I adore this project with every bit of my being,” Kayla Leone, a senior at Island Trees High School in Levittown, said of finishing her Gold Award project for Girl Scout Troop 3635 The Plains, which meets in Levittown.

For her project, the 18-year-old decided to help Last Hope Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation in Wantagh by aiding the feral cats roaming Long Island. She built six cat shelters out of plastic bins that were placed in backyards in Mineola, Middle Island and Central Islip. “I absolutely love building these shelters for them, because we’re giving them a chance,” she said.

Leone, who lives in Bethpage, has volunteered with Last Hope for roughly two years, said she has always liked cats. “I became interested in [the project] because I’ve always loved animals,” she said, “but I was never able to have a pet, because everyone in my family is allergic.”

Leone volunteers at the refuge most Saturday mornings. She learned about feral cats from Laura Lang, a Last Hope shift leader. Lang explained to her that the cats need homes, and gave her a list of people who were willing to have cat shelters placed on their property.

Leone gave a presentation about feral cats to the Girl Scouts of Nassau County in October 2017. The office approved her project, and Leone, then a high school junior, got to work.

She had attended Memorial Middle School in Levittown from fifth through eighth grade, and was a member of the National Junior Honor Society. The society’s current adviser, Debbie Nieves, whom Leone knew when she was a member, asked her if she would be interested in getting other society members involved in the project. Leone gave the feral-cat presentation to the society, and its members not only decided to support the project, but also ended up donating almost all of the materials Leone needed — bins, dry and wet cat food and toys.

Leone created pamphlets, which she gave to PetCo stores in Wantagh, Levittown, Farmingdale and neighboring towns, with information on how to build the shelters. They are simple to make, she said, but may require adult supervision when managing power tools. “[They’re] very easy to build . . . [and] they’re very effective,” she said. The insides are lined with Styrofoam and have hay on the floor, to keep the cats warm.

Leone began her journey in Girl Scouts as a Daisy Scout when she was about 5, and rose through the ranks over the years. Initially she did not have any clear plans for her Gold Award project. “But then, when I started volunteering at Last Hope,” she said, “they told me about this problem and how it could be solved and how people can help with it.” Leone said she thought that building homes for the cats “would be one of the most incredible things you can do for these animals.”

She gave two of her six shelters to Last Hope early in February, and two more a week later. Last Hope took charge of locating the shelters in the backyards of people who wanted to help the cats.

Leone showcased one of the shelters in a presentation late last month to the National Junior Honor Society, asking for another round of donations and reintroducing the project to the group, which has added new members. Then she donated the last two shelters to Last Hope.

She will complete a final report and submit it to the county Girl Scout office by the end of the month, Michele Leone, Kayla’s mother, said. The office will then set a date for the ceremony at which Leone will receive her gold award. “We’re hoping this June, before she graduates,” Michele said.

Kayla started and finished the project almost entirely by herself, with a bit of help from her family. “There are issues out there that our kids need to be more aware of globally and community-based,” Michele said. “They’re very into their own little private groups and not out there to see what the community needs and what the world needs. She got the message out there, and I’m really proud of her for doing that.”

Last Hope’s outreach coordinator, Joanne Anderson, said that a lot of feral cat advocates refer to them as “community cats,” because they are in neighborhoods everywhere — and because she believes people have caused much of the feral cat problem by not having their own cats spayed or neutered. “If you can teach other people to do even something as simple as [building] a shelter,” Anderson said, “you’re addressing the problem.”