This holiday season, I’m reprinting a series of inspiring articles about volunteers in the animal welfare world. To kick-start the series, enjoy my essay about what I’ve learned about being a volunteer.
I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been involved in volunteer work. Yet in 2008, after I got married and moved to Lincoln to be with my husband, I found myself struggling to figure out how to fit into the volunteer world. This struggle led me on journey of self-discovery as a volunteer.
When I started to research local non-profit organizations, I hit unexpected roadblocks. Some groups, because of the expertise needed for their volunteer roles, demanded a lot of training hours. Being just three years out of graduate school, and in a job where my contract renewal depended on X amount of hours of employee development training, I wasn’t ready to put myself back into a classroom environment. There were groups I could start with almost immediately, but they still required a year-long commitment of a fixed number of hours per week. Being relatively new to my teaching profession, I didn’t feel capable of committing to a second rigorous schedule. Finally, there were groups that didn’t require a lot of training or a big time commitment, yet presented the biggest roadblock of all: they wanted me to talk to stranger. Being an introvert, I felt this was a deal breaker. And so, for the next few years, I had no outlet for my desire to serve my community until I discovered my niche with Husker Cats and Lincoln Animal Ambassadors.
While I love working with these two groups, this article isn’t about them. Rather, it’s about what others have taught me about being a volunteer. You see, several months ago, I decided to try to make the volunteering process easier for others who might like me end up wondering if they actually have anything besides money to offer. And so I talked to animal welfare volunteers about how they got started, what individual skills they brought to the table, and their advice for aspiring volunteers. This article collects what I’ve learned into one place.
- Volunteers are essential.
Despite the time it might take to find an organization where you best fit, you shouldn’t give up. As various members of LAA told me, their programs depend on volunteers to survive. Donna Kavanaugh stressed that LAA wouldn’t be able to grow without volunteers. “The more volunteers we have, the more we can do. There’s never a shortage of things to do.” And, as Mary Douglas pointed out, “We’re all in this together.” Or, in other words, it takes a village to accomplish the goals of volunteer groups.
- Start with a need.
When I began to volunteer with Husker Cats, I felt that writing educational articles would be the best way to help. When that didn’t pan out, I considered quitting the group. Yet I felt intrigued enough by feral cat colonies that I took a stab at being a caretaker. Because I was open to filling that need, I discovered the great joy of having cats show up at the feeders because of their dependence on me for food and water. I also had the great privilege of opening up our home to a feral cat and seeing her learn to adapt to indoor life and to the companionship of people.
One of the first volunteers I interviewed, Mindy Peck of The Cat House, recommended for prospective volunteers to just get started. “There is always some chore that needs to get completed.” And one of the last volunteers I interviewed, Ron Stow of LAA, responded tongue-in-cheek to my questions with the comment: “What qualifies me for throwing 50-pound bags of food around? Well, I went to the gym in my younger days. I’ve been an avionics mechanic in the Air Force and a mechanic at home. I’m really just trying to fill in where there seemed to be a need.” Both Mindy and Ron are happy with the niches they’ve filled. As for me, I don’t even want to imagine what my life would’ve been like if I’d refused to simply “start with a need”.
- Find your passion.
The beauty about starting with a need is that you might end up igniting a new passion or rekindling an old passion. Through Husker Cats, I found a love for feral cats, which in turn reinforced my love of all cats. Kim Ostermann of Second Chance Pups emphasized, “Get involved. Dig deep and find out what inspires you. What makes you motivated to volunteer? You have to do it without expecting anything back. You have to be motivated enough to do this even though you’re not getting any recognition.” Husker Cats is relatively quiet about what it does, but boasts many dedicated cat lovers.
- There’s room to use your strength.
In talking with me about the ways that Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue can use volunteers, Holly Harpster said: “We do have volunteers with special skills. One takes care of our website and will be training a couple of us how to also do that part. Others are skilled in photography and take pictures of our dogs and are able to bring out some of their personalities in the photographs. Some have baked home-made dog cookies to give away or sell at events. Others find a super deal on something dog related and ask us if we want to buy the item(s) and resell them at an event.”
Years ago, when I lived in Beatrice, I used to help out at Hearts United for Animals. Andy and I spent the occasional Saturday helping to socialize the dogs and the cats. As we became more comfortable, we also sometimes groomed them and even took dogs out to the play areas. Then one year, Hearts United for Animalsdecided to develop an educational curriculum, and I was asked to create plays to package with their lessons. As a side note, those plays are what alerted Mary Douglas of LAA to my creative talent, which eventually led to my becoming their blogger.
- Develop who you are.
Once you find your place in the volunteer world, the next step is to develop your identity. As with any job, if you find that there’s no room to grow, maybe that’s a sign that you need to keep looking for another group. In contrast, everyone I talked with referred to ways that they’re using the skills they brought to the group and developing new ones. One of the greatest delights for me in being part of LAA is how much freedom they’ve given me with the blog and consequently how much I’ve been able to grow as a writer. In addition, I’ve begun taking on additional duties that include ones I used to think I couldn’t handle as an introvert.
The main thing is, said Dina Barta of Dog DB, to not compare yourself to others. “Let who you are develop. Do not try to be someone else. Do not copy a style that is uncomfortable for you.” Jodie Lee of The Cat House also encouraged, “keep creating and exploring new ways to create.” Their advice makes me think of my interview with Tina Lassley, of Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue, who came up with the fund-raising idea of offering pedicures to dogs. She used a skill she had as a pet owner and re-imagined it as a way to make money. As Holly Harpster of Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue concluded when talking to me about volunteers, “It’s wonderful that people are always thinking about how to help these dogs and you just never know what they will come up with!”
- Helping animals is a rewarding experience.
This one is almost a no-brainer, but I can’t ignore it because animal welfare workers expressed this to me time and time again. One young volunteer shared, “Other people should help pets because they are so much fun to be with and they are such good friends.” Tina Lassley of Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue aptly noted, “You play an integral role in the life of a dog. You save a life!”
- Volunteering is a way to give back.
Another reason for volunteering is that it’s a way to give back. In the words of Ron Stow, “At some point, someone has helped you out. Help others!” Jenna Rifer further explained that animals give and teach us a lot and so she wants to give back to them. As for me, although I’ve been helped animals on and off my entire life, my first cat is the reason for now dedicating so many hours to animal welfare. Lucy loved me before I even knew that cats could show affection, and giving back is a way to honor her eight years with me.
- Volunteering is about helping a cause.
While your volunteer work will benefit you, it’s essential to remember that you’re helping for the good of the organization and its causes. As Melissa Ripley of Second Chance Pups pointed out, you’re not in it “for the glory or the credit. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the focus of the program! It isn’t about YOU, it’s about your program and about helping!” One of the youngest volunteers I talked with expressed this sentiment so wonderfully when he said, “We’re able to put the Big Dogs Huge Paws name out so people will know what and who we are so that they can hopefully adopt a big dog from us.”
- Know your limits.
All of this is well and good, but you also need to set boundaries. Otherwise, you might burn out. Tina Lassley of Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue will sometimes lessen or diversify her commitments. Kim Ostermann of Second Chance Pups suggested, “Focus on the positive. You’re there to make a difference and to make a better quality of life.”
- Volunteering will change you. Forever.
As I said at the start, I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been involved in volunteer work. Every time I’ve volunteered with an organization, I’ve felt that it was (in the words of Jeannie Imler of LAA) ‘a win-win for everyone! My most recent ventures might turn out like that of Kim Ostermann described her work with Second Chance Pups, “It was the last thing I was looking for, but here I am eleven years later. I love what I do.” Volunteering with Husker Cats and with Lincoln Animal Ambassadors wasn’t on my radar, but they’ve given meaning to my life and helped me feel part of the animal community.
Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Animal Ambassadors Pet Talk. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2016.