It’s been said, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Not many of us are lucky to have such a scenario. Not everyone’s true calling can put food on the table and pay the rent. First and foremost you have to survive. But that doesn’t mean you have to ignore your true calling altogether.
“That was the lesson for me: I don’t really want to make money; I just really want to be a volunteer.” That was how Patti Lavine, California Co-Coordinator of the National Brittany Rescue & Adoption Network, described her first volunteer experience she had when she only eleven years old.
It was Los Angeles in the 1960’s. “When I was a kid, in the summer our parents would take us to work. My mom worked at a fish company as a bookkeeper. It was no fun at all. But my friend’s Carla’s mom worked at a special education school with disabled kids that we’d color with and make clay stuff and do kind of fun little kid stuff. It was just fun. We did that a couple of summers.”
Eventually her mother made her work. “It was pure drudgery. ‘Here, add these checks.’ I hate numbers.”
With a job to earn money, she looked outside of the summer’s 9 to 5 for fun. “When I was fifteen, I started as a candy striper at the hospital that was two blocks away. And then I said, ‘You know I really would rather be at the children’s hospital because I think it would be more interesting.’“ She applied, but was told she had to be eighteen to volunteer.
“So on my eighteenth birthday I started at the children’s hospital as a candy striper.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t as much fun as she thought it would be. “It was super depressing! They put you in the waiting room… and you were supposed to play with the kids, but the kids were sobbing ‘I want to go home!’ It was very sad.” She lasted six months.
But that didn’t stop her from volunteering. She kept searching and trying different experiences to see what clicked.
“I did all kinds of things. Things would just pop up.” She told me of volunteering for a rape and battered woman’s hotline. “You give them all kinds of information for where they go for treatment to help or somewhere to stay… It was so hopeful and at the same time painful because with rape victims you could get them to a hospital or to treatment, but the battered women—which was way more calls—these women wouldn’t leave the men beating them to death.” It was so intense that volunteers had mandatory therapy once a week to deal with what is now termed “compassion fatigue.”
“There’s things you can do, and you think ‘Wow! I can really make a difference and I can make people happy… and gosh this is all I want to do with my life. I can help them and get them to a better place and get them educated and treatment and welfare …’” But in the end, Patti didn’t feel like she was doing anything at all.
The last call she took, a paramedic picked up the phone that had fallen from the woman’s hand when she had passed out from the beating. When the call ended, she contacted her supervisor, told her a substitute had to be put in and she never went back to it again.
Not every volunteer opportunity is for everyone. But for every opportunity, there is someone. You have to find where you fit and what fits for you. Not everyone finds it the first time they volunteer. They try a few things, or in some cases, they unintentionally fall right into exactly where they belong.
Patti stumbled upon a Brittany spaniel at the SPCA in the early 1990’s and fell madly in love. “He had terrible separation anxiety. I wanted to adopt a friend for him so I began to foster for a rescue group. I had no intention of volunteering once I found him a buddy, but there was such a need, I just got sucked into it.”
Now, over twenty years since she first met that Brittany at the SPCA, she’s still making a difference—and still having fun. Transporting, pulling dogs from shelters, doing home visits, placing dogs: she does it all. But of course, not all of it is fun; but it is her calling.
While every effort is always made to cure a dog from whatever ailments they arrive with, there are some cases that simply cannot be fixed. That alone is a difficult truth that a volunteer has to accept. As with people, sometimes the body cannot recover.
“We have a policy that nobody dies alone. If a dog needs to be put to sleep, there’s no hope for the dog, the dog is terminal, we will take that dog, we’ll pull the dog from the shelter or take the dog from the owner so that dog dies in a blanket wrapped around them, in our arms, with us kissing them and rubbing their ears, telling them what a good dog they are so they don’t go alone on a cold table with nobody to love them..”
While there are rough days like that, there are also beautiful, wonderful days. For instance, “When that person loses their beloved 14 year old dog and we place an 8 year old dog with them, and they call crying saying, ‘He’s my soulmate, he’s the love of my life. I want to live again because of this dog you adopted to me!’ That makes it worth it.”
Although being a volunteer isn’t a job you’re required to do, it is a commitment. It is a commitment not only to the organization you’re dedicating your time to, but a commitment to yourself—to your true calling. There’s no harm in trying different things. I thought for a time that I would become a first responder. I took the FEMA-required classes so that when the next natural catastrophe hit, I would be on the approved list to go and help the animals. But somewhere around the fourth course, I realized it just wasn’t my thing. It didn’t make my heart sing. So I ceased training, but am thankful for the knowledge I gained and people I met along the way.
After adopting (actually, foster-failing) Tucker, I took a hiatus from volunteering. I wanted to spend time focusing on my new life partner. But my true calling wasn’t being answered. I yearned to volunteer, to make a difference, but I didn’t know what my place was anymore. My volunteer work had hinged on me being flexible, always available, and dogless. None of that was true anymore. But my heart still ached. Once you start volunteering, it’s hard to stop. I brought it up to Patti, and as usual, she had some pretty sage advice:
“Do what you love.” Like the driving force from when she was eleven years old it was simple: do what’s fun. “Do what you love and then find the charity out there that needs what you do.” Maybe somewhere along the line, you find something else you also love and you evolve to do more. “Do what you can for everyone and when you find that charity that makes your heart full, stay there and continue to do what you can… Everyone can do something, and it takes hundreds of volunteers to make a charity run.”
In rescue, we must accept that we cannot save them all. But what’s harder to accept that we cannot do it all. Find the niche that is truly yours and stick with it. Maybe you are the person who can dry the tears of a child in a hospital waiting room and make him smile again. Maybe you are the one who has an endless well of hope for the battered women on the other end of the hotline. Maybe you are the one who will wade through three feet of dirty water to reach a dog trapped on the roof of his doghouse while the flood waters rise. Or maybe you’re the one who scans the kennels, taking photos of adoptable animals and networking them. Maybe you have a knack for grooming and volunteer your time and supplies to ready dogs and cats for mobile adoptions. Or perhaps you love organizing fundraisers and events, bringing publicity and people to charities.
We’re all connected. We are all part of this giant puzzle, each of us fitting into various places depending on the needs of the whole. You don’t need to run a rescue to save a life. You don’t have to donate your entire life savings to an organization who helps others. You just need to listen for your true calling. Once you hear it, answer it. Maybe you’ll get it wrong a few times—that’s okay; that’s part of the journey. And once you find your thing, that thing that makes your heart full, don’t stop doing it. It’s not just what you want to do for yourself, but it’s what the world has been asking for and only you can provide.
It doesn’t need to be a big thing; it just needs to be your thing. As for Patti, she puts it simply: “I’m going to do what I can as long as I can, and when I can’t do more, somebody else will.”
Stephanie Wescott is a freelance writer whose mission is to save animals’ lives through story. Although she hails from New England and resides in Southern California, you’ll mostly likely find her somewhere in between on the open road with her canine companion Tucker, searching for trails to hike and stories to tell. You can follow their tracks and read their tales at www.alltuckeredout.