As a freelance writer, I get assignments to write about all sorts of things, many of which I know little or nothing about. That was the case when I was assigned a story about volunteers in my home area, Bucks County, Pa., for Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. The gist of the story is about programs that take advantage of this relatively recent federal holiday, during which people turn a day off of work into a day on in service. Specifically, following Dr. King's legacy and example of self sacrifice and service to community on a day given over to reflection of his ideals.
I thought it was a fantastic idea, and enjoyed learning how my fellow countians practiced this observance. When I turned in the article, I sat back and took a look at my own life, and was frankly ashamed I had never thought to volunteer myself on this day. So I did something about that.
It seemed to me that one should put one's effort toward a cause one feels is somehow neglected, so of course my thoughts turned immediately to animal welfare. I recalled that during one of our kick-off events to promote Almost Perfect, we had hosted several local groups related to animals.
One of those, Tabby's Place, is located across the Delaware River in New Jersey. A representative had brought the organization's mascot, Tashi, to visit with our attendees and be an ambassador for the no-kill sanctuary. That was such a cool thing, watching people at first freaked out by the quadriplegic kitty, quickly come to realize that Tashi was every bit as bright, aware and sentient as any animal they'd ever known. He just couldn't move anything but his head.
I had asked to be able to work specifically in the area dedicated to special needs cats. As it turns out, Tabby's Place realizes that since these critters are the least likely to get attention from visitors (while probably needing it most), they don't sequester special needs cats off in some separate area. Instead, they let most of them walk freely among visitors in the lobby. Unless there's a reason to keep the cat separate, it eats, sleeps, walks about and gets lovin's from people there to check out potential adoptees, fill out paperwork or simply visiting the residents (and yes, I did see one gentleman doing exactly that).
So, I ended up playing with and brushing them a lot (I know - rough job, but someone had to do it). But there was also real work in the laundry and cleaning out enclosures (they only use cages for transport or quarantine -- otherwise resident cats are housed in light, airy rooms or enclosures, with full length windows visitors can see through to watch their antics). One of my favorite jobs was helping to socialize kitties who had been brought in from feral colonies with the belief that they may still be able to become adoptees. I talked softly to them, brushed them (when they let me) and played with their little toys.
I did get to see Tashi and to speak a lot with his caretakers. I got to see the day-in, day-out lives of the dedicated staff who work with him and all the other residents. I got to meet the founders, and the people who work relentlessly to place residents in forever homes (boy, talk about the need to have a bottomless well of faith to come to work every day!).
And most of all, I got to spend time in a sanctuary where I knew that, whether these cats found a forever home or not, their lives were valued, they would be loved and cared for and housed for as long as they lived. It was the first time I ever went into a shelter that I didn't come out crying with sorrow and frustration about all the animals I knew would never be adopted or loved.
It was one of the highlights of this year so far, and I look forward to doing it again. I encourage you to consider doing your own Day of Service. We don't need to wait for a specially designated holiday. Shelters and sanctuaries need our help every day of every year. If you can't afford a full day, do what you can.
If you can't do it all at once, consider spending a few hours here and there collecting old towels, rags, washcloths, blankets and afghans from your friends and neighbors. These items, too old and stained and ratty for humans, are greatly needed and appreciated by these groups, who use them to line carriers, pad enclosure floors and other areas to keep critters warm and comfy. Do a toy drive, asking friends and neighbors to contribute old cat and dog toys their "kids" no longer show an interest in. Gather them all and run them to your local shelter, where I guarantee they'll be appreciated and played with.
Donations of treats, canned food and dry kibble, bedding material and cat litter are also extremely appreciated. I've calculated that our cats cost us about $100/month each (sounds cold, but one must budget) to keep in good health and well fed. Can you imagine multiplying that by the dozens, if not hundreds of animals that shelters and sanctuaries must maintain each year?
Anyway, I'm really glad I did it and urge anyone who needs to feel less impotent in a world that makes us feel we can't do anything to help, to do the same. We CAN make a difference, however small. And it matters.