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'He is still helping animals'

TALENT — There was hardly a dry eye at the Jackson County Animal Shelter Sunday morning when 8-year-old Lily Shepherd threw a party for her big brother.

Alex Shepherd, who passed away from brain cancer in 2015, was the guest of honor. Lily and her mom, Aushna Shepherd, brought Alex’s ashes along for the celebration. The boy, who loved to ride bikes and would spend every chance he got supporting the local shelter, would have been 18 Sunday.

Alex would have been excited to help haul all the donations into the place that his friends and family say was his second home.

Encased in an urn with a silver disco ball fixed on top, Alex was surrounded by gifts for the shelter — cat and dog food, toys, bedding, collars and donation checks.

Alex was a volunteer for the Friends of the Animal Shelter since he was a tiny 5-year-old, and a room was dedicated in his honor months before he died.

The Alex Shepherd Room is used for adopters to get to know their potential pets, or for volunteers helping to socialize kittens and cats.

Decorated with photos and keepsakes from Alex’s days as a volunteer, the room was filled Sunday morning with loved ones remembering his adoration for felines.

Lily Shepherd, despite feeling a bit shy, did not hesitate to say that she loves felines as much as her big brother did.

Aushna Shepherd said this year had been an important and emotional milestone for her family.

“This year has been particularly hard because it’s a milestone birthday, and he would be 18 today. I always used to think, ‘Gosh, he’ll turn 18 and he’s going to go to college,” she said.

“He really wanted to be a surgeon. I knew he’d be gone a long time, and just thinking about that was upsetting.”

Shepherd said community support — at the shelter and through his memorial cycling team, Team Alex — has helped ease the family’s grief. Alex would have graduated from high school this year, she said, and likely would have still been spending a lot of his free time volunteering at the shelter.

“Having the community — after almost five years — still rallying together and being with us is so important and so special, because you feel like everyone has forgotten. But with us, it’s something we live with and deal with every day,” Shepherd said, while wiping away tears.

“Every minute, I’m thinking about him and wishing he was still here.”

Lily is continuing Alex’s work and hosted a donation drive at her school. She said continuing his work keeps her connection with him.

“I liked it because we had never done it before, so it was kind of new and we got a bunch of things I didn’t know we were gonna get,” she said.

Lily smiled as she admitted to having seven cats — some of which were adopted on her brother’s birthday last year.

Aushna Shepherd said she felt like her son “gives us little signs” that he is still with them.

“I do feel like he’s always there. I would have never believed someone telling me before he died that it was possible but, since he’s been gone, there are all these little signs,” she said.

“And every time there’s an adoption out of his room, the (shelter staff and volunteers) tell us that they feel like there’s a little extra special love connected to the adoption.”

Shelter Manager Barbara Talbert said it was touching to see volunteers and staff honor Alex’s memory.

“He is still helping animals all these years later. The room has been a great addition for the shelter to have a place people can spend time with cats,” Talbert said.

“It is heartwarming to see his friends and family still come out to remember how important this was to him.”

Lynda Decker, Alex and Lily’s grandmother, said the turnout Sunday was a testament to her grandson’s kind soul.

“It’s so therapeutic for my daughter to know that his legacy is not forgotten. He spent a lot of time and did all kinds of work for them. He was an animal lover his entire life,” Decker said.

“He worked for FOTAS washing dogs, just did everything he could do. Whatever they needed. He was a sweet soul, very mature. People will text Aushna and say, ‘Hey, guess what, we adopted a cat today in Alex’s room!’ We like to think that a little bit of Alex is with all those cats that get adopted. And that he’s still here with all of us.”

Shepherd deemed the party a success, despite the tears.

“When he was 5, he started selling wrist bands to make money for the shelter,” she said.

“He would just really love this, and to see all that his sister is doing too. Anything for the animals. This would just make him very happy.”

Lily asked that anyone wishing to donate in her brother’s memory go online to fotas.org/ways-to-give/.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Lily Shepherd and her mother, Aushna Shepherd, sit with donations and cards in memory of Alex Shepherd at the Jackson County Animal Shelter in Talent Sunday morning. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune