Why I Volunteer

I was recently given some questions by an acquaintance of mine who was writing an article at school about student volunteering. Here are my answers:

* Why did you get involved in ARLB (Animal Rescue League of Boston)?
After moving off-campus, I decided to adopt a cat. I never had pets growing up (other than some frogs and newts) so the experience was very new to me. I really liked the shelter I adopted him from, so I decided to start volunteering. Although, filling out the application was somewhat of an impulse decision, but after the orientation and training, I knew I had found the perfect fit. I began working with the dogs because it was the only training session I could attend, since the others conflicted with my class schedule. But after a few months, I switched over to cats (not because I don’t love dogs, but because a shelter environment is a lot harder on cats, and there are generally fewer volunteers working with them). I’ve been a “feline friend” ever since.

* How do you manage to find time to volunteer at ARLB while balancing everything else?
I started off slow—only a few hours per week—but then I found myself wanting to go to the animal shelter more and more. It certainly helped that the shelter is a short ten-minute walk from campus, so I could go there after work, or before class. It’s a great stress release, plus I learn so much about animal behavior and rescue. Now because of school, I’m down to only 6 hours per week, but that’s what I really love about where I volunteer. I can set my own schedule, so that I’m there when I want to be. It’s a no-pressure commitment, which is something college students really need. Still, I find myself wanting to be at the shelter more, so I try to get my work done on time so that I can go and help out as often as possible.

* Have you had any other experiences with volunteering in college/grad school (and if so, what were they)?
I always got the feeling that I should volunteer, but I never found the right opportunity. Even in high school, when applying for honor societies, it was always the volunteer hours that held me back. I never found anything that made me say, “yes, I need to be doing this.” Volunteering is a bit like dating—it feels good, but it can be overwhelming at times. But then, when you find that perfect match, it’s easy and fun and effortless. The Animal Rescue League of Boston has opened up a whole new community of people in Boston, and includes some of the most giving and supportive people I know.

Last year I expanded my volunteer work and now I write a monthly newsletter for the Great Dog Rescue of New England (a shelterless network of foster homes that rescues dogs from high-kill shelters in the south, and was founded by an Emerson alumna). At the Animal Rescue League of Boston, I get to work one-on-one with the animals. But they have full-time staff and a marketing department, so I wanted to offer my writing talents to an animal rescue group that really needed the help.

At an event with Great Dog Rescue of New England

 * Why is volunteering important to you?
Volunteering makes me a better person. Because during those hours, it’s not about me. It’s about the cats and other animals that have found themselves homeless through no fault of their own. Sometimes their owner has died; sometimes they are no longer wanted; sometimes the person who loved them has lost their home or their job or both; sometimes they’ve been abused or neglected or left out on the streets to starve. I get to witness both the best and the worst human nature has to offer. But no matter what they’ve been through, shelter animals are always so forgiving—and it’s such a humbling experience. That’s why I volunteer. Because I learn just as much from the animals I help and the people I volunteer with as I do in class.

* What is your favorite part about volunteering at ARLB?
I enjoy watching the cats who come into the shelter with some sort of issue—such as shy and/or aggressive behavior—and seeing them progress week by week until finally they are adopted. I also love being in the adoption center and playing matchmaker with visitors and cats, especially when it results in a cat going home. Cats have as diverse personalities as humans do, and so my job is to listen to what the people are looking for in a pet and make suggestions. But ultimately, I’m an advocate for the animals, not the people, so I’m always trying to find the best home for each cat, not the other way around.

I also love the Animal Rescue League of Boston because it really is a community. Among the cat volunteers (“feline friends”), there’s a fifty year age difference between myself and the oldest. And yet, we go out and celebrate each other’s birthdays, meet up for parties on someone’s porch, and talk for hours about the cats and the shelter and what needs to be done. Volunteering at an animal shelter isn’t always easy. There are certainly bad days—days when an animal hasn’t made it to adoption for one reason or another or the rescue department comes in with an animal that was severely abused, or someone drops off an animal because it no longer matches their furniture (seriously, I can’t make this stuff up). But on those days, I know I have my fellow volunteers to grieve with, and we support each other and encourage each other, and continue to push the work that we do so that more cats are adoptable and have a better experience while they are in limbo between homes.

* Do you think students should volunteer while in college (and if so, why)?
College is extremely busy and stressful in its own right. But volunteering was the best decision I ever made. I think all students should give volunteer work a try, even if it’s only for a couple hours a week for one semester. Even though we’re all here to work on our craft—whether it’s film, writing, acting, etc.—we still need inspiration for our creativity, and volunteering is a great way to get that.

For instance, I now have a blog (www.alcoholcats.com) where I write about what it’s like volunteering at an animal shelter. I also write blog posts for the Animal Rescue League of Boston’s website. I may eventually write a book about it, who knows.

* How can students get involved in ARLB?
There’s a quick application online with instructions: http://home.arlboston.org/volunteer/

There’s an orientation session, and then training for whichever animals you’d like to work with (dogs, cats, or small animals). It takes a little while to get started, but it’s definitely worth it!

* Do you have any tips or suggestions for students who want to volunteer but don’t know how to get involved or who are really busy?
Find an organization that sounds interesting, that you can relate to. There are volunteer opportunities that aren’t a long-term commitment (such as special events). Ease into volunteering, and if you enjoy it, you’ll want to do more. Don’t force it on yourself though. Volunteering is only worth it if you’re getting something out of it. It’s not a job, and it’s not a class. You should want to be there.