Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 4

Yesterday, in Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 3, I talked about my general experiences at the shelter during the summer and falling in love with a dog named Babe who then got sick and adopted.   I’m going to continue in that vein and keep telling you about how the shelter really impacted on me and why I think volunteering, either at a dog shelter or elsewhere, can be a good thing to do.  I’ll wrap up tomorrow and really hit you where it hurts and I apologize for not having any doggie pictures today.  They just didn’t fit my flow.

I had ended yesterday’s piece by pointing out the flood of emotions that volunteers go through when one of their favorite (or in my case, beloved) dogs is adopted.  You’re hurt because they aren’t there anymore but you’re happy that they have a home.  You’re sad that you may never see them again and you worry that their new home won’t care quite as much as you; but you can’t think that way, the people wouldn’t have adopted your dog if they didn’t want to love them.

On and on it goes. Soon enough, of course, another dog comes in that you get attached to and you do it all over again.  I still do it with dogs at shelter now, I’ll have a new favorite and be both sad and happy when they get taken to their new home.  If you can’t handle that part of the experience, you shouldn’t do it.

But Babe was different and, well…I’m getting ahead of myself.

My point is that volunteering at the shelter, good or bad, wasn’t always the easiest experience.  But in a summer without much emotional going on good or bad, it was something to at least feel.  I had been happy during my time with Babe; I was sad when she was sick and I could only see her through the bars of her kennel and it was almost too much when she was gone for good.  But ultimately I was happy because my dog had a home that would love her.

And outside of any of my own selfish reasons for volunteering or what it happened to do (and still does) for me, I’m at the shelter for the good of the dogs.  Yes, I get more than I can describe back but I’m there for them at the end of the day.  They all deserve homes and families that love them and I’m there to help get them to that place; I have to accept what comes out of that even if it hurts sometimes.  The end.

So Volunteer: Part 1

And the only reason I’m gushing about this is that, in hindsight, while many things contributed to my finally digging myself out of the hole of crushing depression (not the least of which being some close friends and some strong medication), what I refer to as my doggie therapy was a big part of it.

Research supports this, not only is touch in general important for health, being around animals can be a stress releaser.  Going to the shelter got me around people (and dogs), gave my days some structure and accountability, got me out in the sun once I got the field walking class taken.

Don’t get me wrong, my other volunteer activity, which I’ll tell you about below does those things too (except for the outdoors bit).  But the shelter was different for reasons I’m trying to explain.  It was good for me in a lot of ways.   It still is which is why I still go in a couple of times per week to help the dogs (or to do special events like Tuesday’s PAWS on Demand shoot); I always have stuff to do now that I’m a blue dot.  Once I get the full blue class under my belt, I’ll have too much to do for the time I’m there.

I can live with it.

Being a bit maudlin here, in hindsight I’ve been stunningly lucky in my life.  I had a family that loved and supported me, some very close friends, and I lucked into a job that lets me goof off all day and still make a good living.  Part of the problem I recognized this summer was too much free time as a function of my job description; when you have nothing to do you get nothing done and spiral down into depression and lonliness.

Filling time with volunteer work is the absolute least I can do to give something back for the life I’ve had the luck to live.  A few hours out of my week doing something good for someone else is an absolute drop in the bucket compared to what I’ve had in my life.  Especially when those few hours actually do as much good for me as I’m doing for whatever I’m helping with.  I’d tell you that volunteering is important for that reason alone.

But it was more than that.  In a summer where I teetered on the edge of my own sanity, being at the shelter was a huge part of pulling me back from the edge.  And Babe was a special part of that recovery to me.  In a summer where there was no happiness to be found for me, Babe gave me a bit, if only for a little while.  The other dogs did too but Babe was special.  Yes, it was temporary and it hurt when it was gone but it was still worth it.  Trust me, when you’re emotionally flat, feeling anything good or bad is meaningful.  It’s better than feeling nothing at all.

And I still miss her.  She was my first and that’s a special thing.  Make no mistake, there are other great dogs at the shelter and there will be more great dogs in the future.  None of them seem to quite measure up to her.

I like most of the dogs at the shelter.

But I loved Babe.


So Volunteer: Part 2

But I’m getting off track of what I wanted to talk about.  If you have any love for dogs (or cats for that matter), or simply find yourself in a place where you’re sinking yourself, consider volunteering.  It needn’t be at a dog shelter but there are always dogs and they always need walking if such is your bent.

Trust me that there are worse ways to spend an hour or two per day than out in the sun walking with a dog who would otherwise be stuck in a cage.  And who is simply happy that you’re there and will appreciate and benefit from any time you can give them.  I mean, you could be at home contemplating your eventual death and deciding that you are totally incompetent in a field you’ve spent 20 years in.

I’ve done both in the last few months and, trust me, the dogs are way more rewarding.

You can find your local shelter easily via a Google search and contact them about volunteer opportunities.  If you can’t find it, check with your local hippie radio station, they probably have a listing of volunteer organizations you can contact.  I can’t speak to other shelters but the AHS only asks for a few hours per month and you can set your own schedule.  You can do more hours than that but many people do as little as one three hour shift per week.  Every little bit helps.

Initially I didn’t even sign up for a shift.  I wasn’t in a place where my own mental state would be happy with that level of accountability and I never had 3 hours of stuff to to as a green BRATT and I knew I’d quit going initially if I really hated it.  I’d drop in for an hour here, an hour there when I was in the neighborhood.  Nobody cared; all that mattered is that I was there at all.  Now I tend to go in less frequently but I’m there longer since I have more to do.  I still don’t sign up for a shift, I gotta keep some flexibility.

But it doesn’t matter how you give them your time, an hour three times per week or three hours once per week.  Every little bit helps.  The dogs always have to poop and pee and when there aren’t enough people for the number of dogs and the dogs don’t get to go out, they either hold it or mess their cages.  Even if you really don’t have time to volunteer, consider making a donation, give blankets or cash (it’s tax deductible) or whatever you can.  It’s always needed and always appreciated.

But, because of how it impacted me, I think actually working with the dogs will be the most rewarding, moreso than just giving a donation or what have you.  Everything helps but the dogs need help right this minute; they need love and walking and the chance to be dogs, even if it’s just a few minutes a day out of their prisons.   They need your help.

And you may find that while you’re helping out the dogs, they are helping you too.  Maybe in ways you don’t even realize at the time; I certainly didn’t realize the impact Babe had on me until I sat down to write this piece and found myself breaking out in tears every few minutes when I thought about her.  What I’m saying it this: don’t even focus on what it might do to help the dogs or the shelter; be selfish and think about what helping may do for your own mental health.  That alone is reason enough to try it.


It Doesn’t Have to Be Dogs

Or if dogs aren’t your thing, find another volunteer group to join; I’m not that kind of silly born-again advocate to think that my pet (get it?) organization is the only or even the best one.  There are all kinds of opportunities if you take the time to look.  Again, check with your local hippie radio station or just Google ‘volunteer opportunities’.  Find SOMETHING.

For example, I’m also involved in a Reading for the Blind & Dyslexic project for example; the other project I mentioned in yesterday’s piece that broke every rule of what my therapist suggested.   It’s a program that reads the text of books of all kinds onto digital media (special CD’s or MP3) that individuals who are blind or have other reading disorders can listen to with special players (or on the computer).  As it turns out, a friend of mine here in Austin who has ADHD in a big way has used the service since she has trouble focusing when she reads.

In all honesty, it’s not my favorite thing (and it just puts me in front of a computer for another hour and a half) and it’s a bit boring but I go because it’s important and it makes me feel a little bit less like an entitled middle class white guy to help out those who are less fortunate.

I vaguely remember being involved in something like this when I was in grade school; I think.   Which is what drew me to it.  Mainly it was close and available and didn’t take much training and I needed something consistent until orientation at the shelter.  And while it technically isn’t what my therapist wanted me doing (I’m isolated in front of a computer), it was a start.

I think of how important reading is to me and how much I’ve read.  And how much I take for granted simply being able to see and look at a graphic of a complex biochemical pathway.  The idea of understanding physiology from someone reading a book staggers me; I can be there and watch the graphic being described by the reader and be looking at it and I still can’t figure out what’s being described.  I can’t imagine doing it without being able to see the picture.

But that doesn’t mean that folks who can’t see or who are dyslexic (or who have other reading impairments) shouldn’t have access to the information that they need or want.  For school, or their own pleasure or whatever.  These folks don’t sit and wallow in pity and there are scores of success stories of people the program has helped who got a 4.0 GPA.  While listening to the information and nothing more.  I couldn’t have done it.

They need access to textbooks ranging from first grade readers to college level textbooks to everything in between.  Should a blind child not get to experience Harry Potter, the book that is credited with getting children even interested in books again?  I’m on the fence with Twilight, mind you, I think they’re better off without it; but I think you get my point.  They need access to things that we take for granted by dint of something out of their control completely.  It’s not that they don’t want to read the books, they can’t.

It takes weeks and weeks to do a full book (we get through maybe 15 pages in an hour and a half and do that math on a 600 page book) and this means that the kids may fall behind in their classes if it’s a text that they need.  With special requests, some books are rushed because someone needs it for a class that quarter. In certain cases, individual chapters are sent out to the student so that they can keep up with the class.  What I’m saying is that it’s good work and it needs to be done.  And it’s not as if I don’t have 3 hours/week to go in.  If it didn’t stun me with boredom, I’d go in more often but I’m at my limits.

I don’t actually do the reading right now. We do it with two people, a reader and a director.  I’m a director, I read along and pay attention for errors (it’s hard to pay attention when you’re doing the reading), stop the reader, run the computer and do the tech work.

I’m good at it because I’m insanely obsessively attention and detail oriented and I’m a tech nerd so I’m fast with their system.  When I take the readers test, I’ll be able to read in physiology related stuff (they try to match readers with their area of expertise to facilitate the information being clear) and that will be more interesting I think.

We actually had a volunteer appreciation event on Tuesday, free barbecue and they gave out awards for passing certain hour or year milestones.  One volunteer has been doing the project 37 years.  I’m 40.  She’s been volunteering nearly as long as I’ve been alive. Staggering. One volunteer is in a wheelchair and marks books at her home but she is still helping.  What’s your excuse?  What was mine until this summer?

And they told us how many hundreds of hours of audio and how many books we had completed just at the Austin location.  It was like 400+ books (I have this insane fantasy that I’ll get to help read in one of mine sometime).  A drop in the bucket compared to what’s out there but that’s 400 books that individuals with reading disorders have access to that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

I’d be sitting at home in front of a computer being belligerent to people for those 3 hours anyway; I might as well spend the time doing something useful. My work with the project helps to make books, which have been an enormous part of my life since I was a proto-nerd in training, available to people who would otherwise have to go without.  Being a bit bored 3 hours/week is nothing against what comes out of it.

And the above may not be it for me since I still need to branch out.  I recently made a new friend involved in two projects herself.  The first is a  food project called Food-Not-Bombs.  They collect food and cook vegan/vegetarian meals for whomever needs it.   The second, called InsideBooks, works to get books to prison inmates who want and need them but don’t have access to them for whatever reason.

At the very least, I told her I’d donate some of my old books; I’d rather see the books go to folks who really want/need them then sell them for 25 cents to Half-Price books.  If I can help in other ways, I plan to do that as well since it’s only one paltry night a week.  See above for my comments about the importance of reading in my life and why this interests me.


So Volunteer: Part 3

What I’m saying is this: the specifics of the organization don’t even matter; there’s tons out there.  They all do good work and they all need help of some sort.  Find one that matches what you can do emotionally, time wise, physically,  financially, etc. and is close enough that you can get there consistently.

I couldn’t do one with sick kids hospice for example; I can barely deal with losing my dogs when they get adopted and they are going somewhere happy.  Seeing a child dying, I couldn’t do it.  It’s not for me.   I’d have done the food bank but the times they had available and where it’s located meant I wouldn’t do it consistently and that defeats the purpose entirely.   The two I’m involved in are the two that fit me.  Something else will fit you.

So find one you WANT to do for whatever motivation of your own.  Maybe you went hungry when you were a kid, volunteer at a food bank. Maybe someone close to you was treated well in the hospital, go volunteer there.  Maybe you lost a friend to cancer, go to a cancer hospice if you can hack it.  You’re a better person than I am if you do it without cracking.

But please do something.  And don’t even focus on what good you might do for someone else.   You can’t begin to understand the benefits that YOU will get from being there until you’ve done it.  So forget about what you’re doing to help someone.  Altruism is mostly bullshit anyhow, go volunteer to get something out of it for yourself and be glad that everybody wins.

Because maybe it will help you deal with white guilt, or put you around people when you’re depressed and isolating yourself, or give you somewhere to be instead of at home where you’re unhappy.  Deep down you know it’s a good thing to do.   Hell, the Austin Humane Shelter is probably 8 chicks for every dude; go volunteer so you can meet girls who will be impressed that you’re volunteering and at least share that one interest (it occurs to me that this sentence is really sexist but I’m male so deal with it).

Find a reason to do it and just do SOMETHING.

But I’m going to keep pushing the shelter because this is dogs we’re talking about and dogs are awesome.  And far more than the reading project, I feel that my time at the Austin Humane Shelter and the time I spent with Babe made a huge difference in my life this summer.   So this is about dogs and by the time you’re done reading the final installment tomorrow you’ll either go volunteer or go adopt a dog. Or just hate me for making you cry for an hour.  Maybe you’ll do all three.

See you tomorrow for the conclusion.

Read Volunteering at the Austin Humane Shelter: Part 5.