By Darlene Duggan
With the hustle and bustle of the holidays over, the new year is a great time to start planning ahead for how we are going to spend our time next holiday season. When I was working for an animal shelter, I spent most of my time as the Director of Volunteer Services, so on a regular basis, I had the pleasure of working with very compassionate and selfless people. I was continually astounded and awed by their dedication and commitment towards bettering our society for animals, and the holiday time always brought out the best of the best—the MVP’s of the volunteering world!
I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite volunteer holiday stories in the hopes that you and your family will be inspired to action––it’s never too early to get inspired!
Caroling for the Animals: A local Girl Scouts troop organized a Christmas party in which they gathered together to make toys for the cats in our shelter. After the craft party was over they donned their Santa hats and tuned their voices to walk around the streets caroling to their neighbors. Unexpectedly, people gave them monetary donations, so when they brought the toys to the shelter, they also handed staff a small can of change. It has been a while since I have seen carolers in my neighborhood (come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen carolers in my neighborhood), so I applaud these young girls for participating in such a wonderful holiday tradition and turning it into an opportunity to serve the animals.
The Volunteer Opportunity Exchange: One day I received a call from a woman looking for a special one-day volunteer job. As we talked about her options, she explained that her family participates in a unique “Secret Santa” gift exchange with a fun twist: they pull names from a hat, like most other gift exchanges, but instead of purchasing a gift, they have to volunteer with an organization on behalf of their loved one. Then, on Christmas Day when they would normally be opening gifts, they reveal themselves to each other, and talk about which organization they volunteered with and why.
This particular year the woman I was speaking with pulled her younger sister’s name from the hat and since her sister is an animal lover, she decided to volunteer with our shelter! A further positive ending to this story—the woman and her sister came back to the shelter about five months later and became permanent volunteers.
Family Dog Walking: At my shelter, volunteers had to be at least 18 years old before they could have direct contact with animals. But, kids could still come in and “walk” dogs if their parents/guardians also held the leash at the same time. And, some families did just that—on Thanksgiving morning before the activity of the day began, we had a few families come in to the shelter, sign in as visitors, and take some lucky dogs for a stroll in our courtyard. This was always a welcomed sight on holidays because we usually had limited staff on those days, and the dogs got extra time out of their cage. Everyone left that day feeling good!
I am a mother of two young daughters (soon to be three!) and as I reflect back on these fantastic volunteer memories, I am getting excited to start implementing some of them as part of the holiday traditions for our family. The holidays are a time to be thankful for the gifts we have been granted, and the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut is making me especially appreciative this year. For me, I can find no better way to express my gratitude than by sparing some of my time in service to the animals I love, and along the way, model the compassionate attitude I so desire my daughters to posses and share with the world too! So, I encourage everyone to join me and get creative in how you and your family can contribute positively to our community.
Darlene Duggan worked for many years behind the scenes at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago––overseeing volunteer programs, problem solving shelter issues, and laboring tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Her bi-weekly column, The Shelter Voice, will explore the complex concepts surrounding animal rescue and welfare usually reserved for discussions amongst those at the very front lines of the industry. She hopes to broaden the understanding and education of shelter supporters so they can act as well-informed advocates for the cause and help spread the adoption and rescue message throughout their community.