Article originally posted in The Columbus Dispatch
By Ken Gordon
A year ago, the Lawrence County Animal Shelter housed its dogs in rows of chain-link cages, with a gutter serving as an open sewer running behind them.
It was dingy, poorly lit and lacked air conditioning, which made summers unbearable at the shelter, which is located in the muggy Ohio River town of Ironton.
“I remember in July, I was cleaning kennels, and it looked like I had taken a shower, it was so hot back there,” shelter director Denise Paulus said. “So imagine how the dogs felt.”
And then, in September, Jim Phieffer came to town — actually, Phieffer and a team of employees and volunteers associated with GiGi’s, a nonprofit organization that helps shelter dogs.
The Canal Winchester group, which was founded in 2018, takes in dogs from counties with low adoption rates, gives them exams and vaccinations, then sends them to shelters with higher adoption rates.
Phieffer is the president of the board at GiGi’s and also the CEO of Columbus building company Trinity Homes.
As a dog lover and a builder, it did not take him long working with underfunded shelters in rural Ohio to see the need for renovations.
The group’s first project was the Jackson County Dog Pound in southern Ohio early in 2019, a roughly $40,000 renovation.
Then they came to Ironton. A few weeks and about $90,000 later, Paulus and her employees were enjoying the well-lit rooms, with all-new kennels, each with individual drains and underground pipes.
And, of course, air conditioning.
“We looked like a 1980s dog pound, and they brought us into the 21st century,” said Paulus, who was effusive in her praise of Phieffer. “The man is amazing. What he did for us was over and beyond.”
For his efforts, Phieffer was named in May by the Petco Foundation and dog trainer and television-show host Victoria Stilwell as one of five Unsung Heroes finalists nationwide and awarded a $10,000 grant to help GiGi’s continue its work. (The winner took home an additional $50,000 grant).
Phieffer, 50, lives in Blacklick with his wife, Laura, two children and three rescue dogs.
“I’ve always liked dogs, and I’ve always liked the underdogs,” he said. “I feel for people and dogs who need some extra help. And I love helping.”
He had thought that when he retired he would help shelters in some way. So a few years ago, when Trinity Homes founder George Skestos — another dog lover — came to Phieffer and asked for ideas on how he could leave a legacy behind, the two brainstormed the idea that became GiGi’s (with input from Columbus Humane and experts at Ohio State University).
GiGi’s works with 15 shelters around Ohio, and most are underfunded and struggling, Phieffer said.
“You cannot believe the shape some of them are in,” he said. “So we decided to invest some of our time and energy to make these facilities healthier for the dogs.”
Though the Jackson County renovation was not as expensive as Lawrence County , the impact it made was equally significant. County Dog Warden Deb Fout ticked off a long list of renovations — electrical, plumbing, resurfacing and lighting — and finally paused.
“Lord, they did so much, I’m trying to remember it all,” she said. “Our pound was in dire need of repairs, and they came in and made improvements that we didn’t even dream of. We didn’t dream as high as they took us.”
Fout also noted Phieffer’s humility.
“Never would I think that somebody of his stature would be so humble,” she said. “He can do anything in the world with his life, and he chooses to help the little guy.”
Phieffer said he likes “leading from the front, and getting my hands on things.”
But mostly, he deflects praise and is quick to point out that the projects could not have been completed without volunteers and, in the case of the Lawrence County shelter, local fundraising. County residents pitched in about half of the $90,000 price tag, he said, and helped in other ways, as well.
“The people down there, a lot of them are struggling, but they really care,” Phieffer said. “People would come by and give us donuts, or $10, or ask if they could help paint or scoop gravel.”
GiGi’s acting CEO, Justin McKinniss, said Phieffer is quiet and intense, and it wasn’t until they shared long car rides to and from Ironton last year that he learned more about what motivates Phieffer.
“Making things, and making things happen, that’s what drives Jim,” McKinniss said. “His drug is productivity.”
A third renovation was planned at the Ross County Humane Society this year, but that has been postponed until the coronavirus threat subsides. Phieffer is hopeful of starting that project in August.
Despite the delay, Phieffer plans on plenty more opportunities to get his hands dirty alongside others in order to create a better experience for shelter dogs. That’s the way it’s always been for him.
“He had his nose to the grindstone, he worked hard,” said Paulus, the Lawrence County shelter director. “They would come down at 7 a.m. and work to 10 p.m. and then drive back to Columbus. And at the end, he was smiling.
“I don’t know how he did it. He was like our Superman.”