Phyllis Tucker has always had a caregiver’s heart. But the volunteer work finding homes for stray cats for which she recently won a national award is a different kind of calling, and one for which she never planned.

Phyllis Tucker has always had a caregiver’s heart. But the volunteer work finding homes for stray cats for which she recently won a national award is a different kind of calling, and one for which she never planned.

Tucker, a 67-year-old Rison resident and retired nurse, recently became the Arkansas winner of the Home Instead Senior Care network’s Salute to Senior Service award. The national award recognizes seniors for their dedicated community service. Tucker said she enjoyed the ceremony, but what she most looks forward to is the $500 that goes to the winner’s favorite charity.

"I’m so excited," she said. "It will be used for the cats."

Tucker has devoted hundreds of hours to finding homes for cats from Pine Bluff Animal Control, which does not have the facilities to shelter or care for cats. As a member of the Jefferson County Humane Society, Tucker is allowed to rescue as many cats as possible — a mission that has become very personal.

Tucker has worked tirelessly to raise donations for spaying, neutering and providing vital medical care for cats that people leave at the shelter. In addition to rescuing the animals, Tucker hopes to increase public awareness to reduce the number of cats that are put down because of lack of funds and families to foster and adopt.

"I don’t think people understand that we don’t have an actual cat rescue here," Tucker said. "When the shelter gets dogs, they can advertise and get people from all across the country to pick them up, but it’s not like that for cats."

Tucker, who had just arrived at the Animal Hospital in Pine Bluff, held on to two hungry newborn kittens that she received that morning.

"They need to be checked out, one of them might be blind," she said.

Before rushing to the hospital, she had sent out requests for donations to cover medical expenses. For Tucker, it was just another day.

Brittney Bradley, office manager at the Animal Hospital, said Tucker is a frequent client.

"She is definitely passionate about it," Bradley said. "We see her here four to five times a week trying to get medical care for the cats. She puts her all into it."

Cathy Turner, a volunteer at Pine Bluff Animal Control, nominated Tucker for the award.

"I know lots of seniors, but Phyllis is the hardest working, most dedicated retiree that I know," Turner said. "Some retirees go out and take small jobs. But this isn’t just a job for her; it’s a true lifestyle.

Tucker has only been rescuing cats since September last year, but she doesn’t take her commitment lightly. She believes the work she does with the cats is a divine calling.

"The Lord spoke to my heart and said, ‘you need to go out there and take care of those kittens,"’ she said. "He told me ‘you can’t save all of them, but you need to make their lives the best you can."’

Her plans for retirement took a sharp turn. But it wasn’t an easy transition.

"Every time I went to the shelter, I got sick," Tucker said. "It literally broke my heart, but there was such a pull, I had no choice."

"These are my babies," Tucker said as she began to bottle-feed the kittens. "They have feelings just like us. They get frightened and sick. They show joy when you come home and get sad when you leave and they give a whole lot of love."

When someone drops off kittens that are not weaned without the mother, Tucker said problems are compounded.

"I just don’t have enough volunteers to take care of them," Tucker said.

Tucker solicits help from friends and family when she can, but hopes for a better solution.

"I can’t emphasis enough the need for people to spay and neuter their pets. If everyone would do that, we wouldn’t need a rescue facility," she said.

After examining the newborns, veterinarian Miki Travis said one of the kittens would need antibiotics to clear up an eye infection. They wouldn’t know until later if the kitten would be blind.

As "her babies" snuggled into her neck, Tucker said she is concerned about what might happen to them if she doesn’t get donations for medical care and a home for them.

"We can’t do anything without donations. It’s the life blood of rescues," Tucker said.

For more information about cat adoptions, to volunteer or make a donation, contact the Jefferson County Humane Society at 870-247-2677 or Pine Bluff Animal Control at 870-543-5135.