Saying I was a shy kid seriously understates the issue. I always had one or two friends and was fine in small groups, but crowds scared me. When I had to be around people I didn’t know well, I tried to be invisible and rarely spoke, even when spoken to. Unlike my younger sister who would walk up to new kids in the park with a “Hi, I’m Jen. What’s your name?” I avoided even acknowledging new people.
This posed a challenge as I reached adolescence. A requirement for the sacrament of Confirmation is performing service. Many of the girls in my class met this requirement by volunteering at the local nursing home. This was not at all appealing to me. Old people could be intimidating and sometimes smelled funny. Exploring options, I found myself at a place called Animal Rescue Force, asking if it might be possible to volunteer there. As it turned out, the organization was completely run by volunteers and all I had to do was sign up. There was no permanent shelter, only a weekend adoption site. (Pets were fostered or held by their owners during the week.) Besides finding pets homes, a goal was to raise the funds to open a no-kill shelter.
A few weeks later, I got a call asking if I was available that Saturday. I was and my parents dropped me off for the day. I was introduced to the other volunteers and quickly became friends with one. Dawn was tasked with showing me the ropes and to my relief, carried the conversation for the day. Since I didn’t have to talk much, I was comfortable and as a bonus got to spend time playing with and holding cats and walking dogs. At the end of the day, I was asked if I was interested in coming back the next month and work with the same team. I was and I did. In fact, Dawn and I became lifelong friends and I spent much of the next seven years volunteering there.
The first few volunteer shifts were working with the same team and involved mostly animal care. As I learned more about how the organization worked, the job also involved answering questions – about the animals, the procedure for adopting and sometimes dog and cat care in general. At some point, my schedule didn’t work with the others on that team and I signed up for a shift with a new group. Before long, I was there more than once a month and at one point, almost weekly.
My confidence with talking to people grew. Courage came from the fact that I was speaking for those without voices. There was a stringent screening process prospective adopters had to go through. These animals all had already lost one home, and the goal was to ensure the next one would be forever. There were contracts to sign (for both adopters and those surrendering animals) and some people didn’t like the content, sometimes becoming belligerent. In dealing with these people, I learned many lessons in communication and how to defuse tense, emotional situations. It didn’t happen often, but occasionally there were threats to harm animals and rarer, threats against the volunteers who patiently explained the policies and the reasons behind them. (Some people were violently opposed to the requirement that adopted pets be spayed or neutered. Others insisted that we take unwanted pets off their hands without paying fees or signing any papers.)
While it did not come naturally to me, I became a fundraiser. Walking around with a coin can was one way to help and I learned that directly asking people to help was more efficient than simply holding a can, waiting for someone to drop loose change in. Also challenging, but preferable to me than asking for money was soliciting prizes from local businesses for the big fundraising event of the year: a silent auction. I also participated in and even organized additional fundraising events, such as candy and bake sales and a photography contest.
My phone skills grew as everyone involved in the week-to-week operations generally got a confirmation phone call and there were follow up calls to be made several months after adoptions to check in and see how things were going. There was also necessary paperwork to complete as part of this process. Again, there were times that people were difficult and I had to make notes to refer them to the directors for possible legal action.
Since I spent so much time there, I became an expert of sorts and within a few years, was in charge of scheduling and training volunteers. In this role I was constantly talking to strangers and even running a training seminar for dozens of people at a time. This also meant I reported to the board of directors on a monthly basis, submitting a report, taking questions and talking about any concerns. I suggested a volunteer newsletter and wrote and mailed it for a year or so. I also put together a proposal for a therapy dog program for nursing homes, which while it was shot down for a number of good reasons, gave me valuable insights into how such a proposal is done.
My time with A.R.F. ended when I moved out of the area, taking a kitten, life skills and memories with me. While many people think volunteering so many hours is a waste of time, my life is immeasurably better having spent this time in this way.
15 of #52essays2017
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