Practicing engineers will tell aspiring technologists that a bachelor's degree in any of the specific engineering disciplines provides them with an excellent entrance into multiple professional arenas. Kelly Brown Cass, Virginia Tech mechanical engineering graduate from the Class of 1999, is a prime example.
In 2009, she started a non-profit, successfully applying to the national Human Alliance to help her launch Mountain View Humane, an affordable spay/neuter clinic that will be opening on 53 West Main Street in Christiansburg this summer. The one-time mechanical engineer who excelled in lean manufacturing, is now applying her multiple talents to directing this clinic that will serve clients from as far away as Mercer County, West Virginia., to Virginia's bordering counties with North Carolina.
Mountain View Humane will also have Dr. Megan Byrnes, formerly the medical director of Angels of Assisi, and a graduate of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, to work with the clinic when it opens, and vet school students are already volunteering their service.
It's been a circuitous route for Cass. When she was 14, she learned how to tinker with cars, rebuilding her first 1972 MG with her dad. Cass said her father was "a self-made man who worked as a contractor in Tazewell, Va." When he accepted the MG as payment for a job, they worked side by side, getting it back on the road. On her 16th birthday her parents gave her an almost 30 year old car at the time, but it was a classic 1966 Mustang.
"I liked taking something that was dilapidated and thrown away, and make it useful and pretty," Cass said. "If I complained about a brake system, Dad would say, 'Fix it.'"
So when it came time to pick a college major, mechanical engineering seemed like a natural fit. When she enrolled at Virginia Tech after two years at Southwest Virginia Community College, she was already a fairly competent auto mechanic, and she starting working on an advanced semi-active suspension for hybrid electric vehicles under the advisorship of Mehdi Ahmadian, mechanical engineering professor. The only woman on the design team, Cass held her own with the other NASCAR enthusiasts in the mechanical engineering class. And she co-oped with Norfolk and Southern Railroad.
Ahmadian recalled her work, saying, "Kelly always had a can-do attitude. She would always rise to the challenge and get the job done, no matter how daunting the task may seem at first. She was certainly a leader among her senior design team."
When she graduated, she started in a traditional engineering route, taking a job with Gala Industries, a plastics company in Botetourt County. She moved into management within eight months of accepting the position, and soon enrolled in the MBA program offered by Virginia Tech at its Higher Education Center in Roanoke.
With her MBA in hand, she eventually moved to O'Neil Steel in Roanoke, which made good use of her skills in lean manufacturing.
But several things happened that caused Cass to change her course. Her father, her mentor in engineering, died in 2009. Around the same time, she started talking with Bill Watson, executive director of the SPCA in Roanoke. He was investigating Humane Alliance, the organization that has founded some 70 spay/neuter clinics in the United States.
"I learned that there was a clinic in Roanoke, and one in Bristol, and nothing in between. I also learned that the euthanasia rates for cats and dogs were very high. For example, at the Galax/Carroll/Grayson Animal Control and Pound, over 96 percent of the cats that there in 2008 were euthanized. Another way to look at these statistics is that for every five dogs in the New River Valley that die, two are by euthanasia; for every three cats that die, two are by euthanasia," Cass said.
These statistics were appalling to her. So, almost a year ago, she left her job, but not her talents. She started working on a floor plan for Mountain View Humane that allowed for educational opportunities as well as medical facilities. "We plan to do some open houses where everyone from Girl Scouts to the Rotary Club can take a tour, seeing prep work by the staff, but not the actual surgery," she explained.
"Starting this clinic is like starting a lean manufacturing process,” she said. Some times, she acts as a designer/developer, other days as a director of marketing. Cass has used her management and writing skills to solicit support and funding. Letters were sent to all the practicing veterinarians in the area, explaining how the new clinic would only be meeting the spay/neutering needs. The clinic will be pleased to provide a list of veterinarians for follow up and long term care. “”Statistics say that some 85 percent of animals that come to a clinic like ours have never been to a vet before," Cass said. "We will never be a wellness clinic, but we want to encourage clients to enter into a relationship with a private practice veterinarian."
She has filed for multiple grants, but two of her biggest supporters are Karen Waldron and her husband Shawn Ricci of Shawsville. The clinic itself carries their names, The Waldon – Ricci Spay Neuter Clinic. Another early supporter is the Community Foundation of the New River Valley.
She is also acting as the chief financial officer, telling her lead veterinarian to just "worry about the quality of medicine, and I’ll worry about paying for it."
Mountain View Humane will be partially dependent upon philanthropy, but Cass has already identified certain organizations willing to help. "We hope members of this community will want to help their neighbors by subsidizing surgeries for those who can’t afford even our low prices," she said.
With all of her assets, one would not think there might be much in the way of obstacles facing her. But she did admit to one. "I am allergic to cats," she laughed, "but I take my meds!"