ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — It’s tucked away on Hollenbeck Street in Rochester, wedged between East Ridge Road and N. Clinton Ave. Its art on the outside is a bold statement, and the mission may be even bolder.

At its most basic, PAWS Youth & Advocacy Center is a place to hang out and for kids to get away, and put their energy into something positive instead of being involved in gun violence.

PAWS stands for “Prevention, Advocacy, Wellness, Sustainability.” For founder Matt Piccone, the center combines two loves and passions:

Sports and animals.

“Sports and animals immediately break down barriers,” Piccone said. Throughout the tour he gave, he was hounded by… A hound. A black lab named Onyx, the future mascot of the space.

“(But) it’s not just dogs and cats, I love all animals,” he said. Four dogs from the original PAWS program still live at the facility. They have their own room and a heated patio.

There are also multiple fish tanks in PAWS, including fish and descendants of the fish that belonged to boxer Jack Dempsey.

Seriously.

He says his love of animals has always been there. Growing up in Rochester, he recalls never having a minute without a dog around.

Something else he grew up with was sports. A longtime baseball player, he also played football at Aquinas Institute. He would also go on to coach football at the school.

“I’m an athlete, I’m a coach, I’m always trying to get better, I’m trying to win,” Piccone said of his mentality.

After his coaching stint at Aquinas, another calling came. He saw the suffering of people in his community and saw the suffering of animals. He knew the two were connected.

So in 2012, he founded the original “PAWS.” It was a center where he would collect strays and give services to neighborhood dogs who needed them.

His work was so impressive that it gained national attention. He got a call to start similar shelter and spay & neuter programs in Texas. Multiple of these shelters are now open.

Following that was a stop in North Philadelphia. There he also would work with people who were in prison, making sure they would not go back in.

But during that time, he admitted he had some doubts. After all, as an athlete, he wanted to “win.” To him, other institutes weren’t interested in solving the problem but were just trying to keep it from worsening.

“I’m just not good with that all,” he said. “I felt like I was on a treadmill.”

But what brought him back to Rochester was an incredible random act of kindness.

“A woman who had never met before, who happened to be an artist, (who) had never been to a PAWS event, she left her last will and testament to us,” he said.

The only condition of the financial support was that Piccone return to Rochester to continue to the work. He did. And to honor her memory as an artist, he wanted to incorporate art into the new facility.

This 22,000-square-foot PAWS center opened in 2021. The building’s outside, inside, and back is covered with work from the art group FUA Crew, a collection of artists that Piccone has known his whole life.

Inside, made possible by Accurate Acoustical (a contractor in Victor), contains an incredible bevy of services. Batting cages with hit tracking, turf, a Juggs machine, boxing, basketball, a barbershop, tabletop games, TVs and hangout rooms, and a sensory-friendly gym.

It combines animals, sports, and arts. All of the things that make Piccone driven.

“This place speaks to the community, when the kids come here, they feel welcome,” he said. “And I want this feeling to carry out into the community.”

Kids from across the Greater Rochester Area can come to PAWS. He says it’s good for the community for people from many different backgrounds to come together.

“We never turn anyone away,” he said. Piccone says that for any athlete who needs a place to be, he will open up the facility for them.

He says people paying to use the services that at PAWS help lessen the cost for everyone, and go towards furthering the mission of ending suffering for animals and people.

“You just hit a baseball, you just donated,” he said.

Piccone has many projects on the horizon, but the next one if to make sure the sensory gym gets out into the community.

But of all of it for the mission, to end suffering, and to prove that with time, resources, and positivity, comes change.

“In essence, this is to prove to people that when you put all your heart and your energy into something, anything is possible,” he said.