Our history began when Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers was co-founded by M.J. Willard, EdD, and Judi Zazula, MS, OTR/L, in Boston, Massachusetts, and placed its first monkey helper in 1979. That monkey, named Hellion, served as a helper and companion to Robert Foster, a Boston man living with paralysis, for over 28 years.
In 1982, Helping Hands became a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization under the IRS code. From the beginning, Helping Hands’ mission was to provide service animals to adults living with mobility impairments as a result of an accident, injury, or disease. Developmental grant funding from the National Science Foundation, the Veterans Administration, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America supported the program’s initial research and development stage (which ended in 1989).
During its first decade, Helping Hands investigated and designed all of the components of the program—from determining which species of monkey was best suited for this work to the kinds of tasks the human recipients would need, and finally, to the best methods for teaching tasks to the service monkeys.
In the 1990s, outreach efforts and coverage of our service monkeys in the media helped bring national attention to our organization, and private donations began to replace the government funding that ended in 1994. Grants from private foundations, gifts from individual donors, and income from special events became a major source of support for Helping Hands. Workplace giving, especially by federal employees giving through the Combined Federal Campaign, also supported our mission.
In response to changing technology, training protocols improved and were refined as new tasks replaced the old. For example, service monkeys went from placing a record on a turntable to turning on computers and loading DVD players. Our history reveals that as the range of tasks taught in training grew larger, so too did Helping Hands’ ability to assist people with a wider spectrum of mobility impairments.
In 1999, Helping Hands undertook the search for a permanent and specially modified home for its training center. The Thomas and Agnes Carvel Foundation Center (also known as The Monkey College) officially opened in 2004.
As years went by and technology improved still further, Helping Hands saw a slow but steady decrease in requests for service monkeys. That, coupled with the aging of our monkey population and the increasing government restrictions on exotic animals in the home, led us to start to focus more on the needs of the older, post-service monkeys in our care.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe. To keep our recipients, staff, and monkeys safe, we suspended all new placements, and in 2021, we made the difficult decision to permanently cease all new placements. The Monkey College underwent emergency renovations to create a safer environment for our staff and monkeys and to develop a facility that was more focused on the aging post-service monkeys in our care. While the first phase of the renovation is complete, the continuing payments represent a large part of our annual financial expense.
At Helping Hands, our history has prepared us so well for the challenges of today and into the future.