When a handful of individuals with a common goal gather, great change begins to take shape.

Such was the case in the mid-1970s when a concerned citizen, Billye Cooke, responded to the Empire-Tribune's Joyce Whitis in regards to a column she had written about the need for an Erath County organization dedicated to rescuing abandoned and neglected animals.

Before an assembled crowd of animal advocates at the Paw Ball Saturday, Julie Crouch, a member of the 2011 Class of Leadership Stephenville, spoke about the formation of the Erath County Humane Society (ECHS) and Whitis' role in its establishment.

"In 1975, Joyce received a call from Billye. The two women had never met, but both agreed that a Humane Society was needed in the area," Crouch said. "Billye asked Joyce to write an article to ask other concerned citizens to meet at her home to form an organization. Several people showed up at that first meeting"

Whitis had been living in Erath County for about two decades when she penned that column. She had made a routine of picking up and caring for stray dogs and other animals from across the county.

"The city had no shelter at that time," Whitis said, adding that strays were housed in a holding pen and when the pen was full, the animals were destroyed before being dumped at the landfill. "It was horrifying - and something had to be done."

After a healthy turnout at that first meeting, plans to establish the Erath County Humane Society was in the works.

Whitis continued to use the newspaper to inform the community of the group's progress.

"One of our first contributors was the Terrell Foundation, I think that first donation was something like $3,000 and that was a substantial amount of money," Whitis recalled.

Whitis knew the one thing that would make the donor base grow was calling on influential community members - like District Judge Don Jones and local attorney Bob Glasgow.

"We had nothing, but people contributed," Whitis said.

With contributions and growing community interest, Whitis, by then an official member of the ECHS board of directors, addressed the Stephenville City Council in March 1984 and asked the city to lease land to the Humane Society to serve as a foundation for an animal shelter.

"Mrs. Whitis said the society was raising money to build the shelter from private funds, but needed the land to build it on. She also requested $8,000 per year to operate the facility," Crouch told the Paw Ball crowd. "The council voted to let the society use the land, water and sewer free of charge and made a motion to include the money needed for operating in the next year’s budget."

With the land dedicated to the project and the city helping fund the operation, the organization approached local builder Phillip Hale about constructing the facility.

"He said he would build it and we could pay him when we got the money," Whitis recalled. "By the time he finished, we hosted a banquet and had enough money to pay for the construction."

The city then agreed to have animal control officers deliver animals to the shelter, and the county also offered funding.

One of the animal control officers, Judy Hallmark, later became the facility's director, a position she still holds.

Today, ECHS shelters stray and works to find them a home, investigates cruelty calls and does minor vet work.

Whitis is still an ex-officio board member who keeps a watchful eye on shelter operations. She said there are many other people who were instrumental in starting the shelter all those years ago.

"There are so many individuals and companies that contributed to the establishment of the Erath County Humane Society that it would be impossible to name them all," Whitis said. "Bob Brincefield, John Darby, Marla Bush, Pat Schmidt, Billye Cook, Dr. Jim and Sandy Herbertson, Dr. Eugene Atkinson, Pinkie and Hilde Swindle, Jim Chambers, Bob Glasgow, District Judge Don Jones, Dr. Ken Dorris, Bob Scott, Nan Holcomb, Iva Marr, Dr. Don Fletcher, Dr. Verne Scott, Garry and Beth Lewellan, Bill and Dottie Corbin, Bill Oxford, David Clayton, Dr. Vance Terrell, Dr. Jim Terrell, Dr. Frank Terrell and Connie Malloy. The list is endless."

Over the years, Whitis said she has witnessed a shift in how Erath residents treat animals.

"People will now take animals to the shelter and we see less dumped on the side of the road," she said. "People love animals and don't like to see them mistreated and abused."

On Saturday, Crouch told the crowd that Whitis, 82, was the motivating force behind the organization that protects creatures both great and small.

"None of us would be here today had it not been for the concerned citizens who had a vision and banded together to establish the Erath County Humane Society — a place of protection for man’s best friend," Crouch said. "One person in particular is Joyce Whitis. For several years, Joyce wrote the beloved column 'Animal Tales' in the Stephenville Empire-Tribune.

"Her coverage of animal issues in our area was actually a first-hand account of issues such as neglect, cruelty or abandonment. Joyce often rescued these animals herself, whether from a bar ditch, briar patch or through a court order to seize animals that were being abused. Her tireless work and dedication to this community’s animals, as well as the countless stories she shared as a voice for those who could not speak for themselves makes her a hero. Thank you Joyce Whitis for making our community a better place to live — for all of us."