I was raised to volunteer (thank you mom). By the time my brother and I were 10 years old we had already been involved with the Easter Seals, YWCA, Boy and Girl Scouts, PTA events, and countless other volunteer endeavors. In middle and high school I spent my free hours volunteering as an aid for students in the Life Skills classrooms, volunteered as an HIV prevention educator, and tutor. In college I assisted doctoral students with collecting research for their dissertations, volunteered for Joint Forces Dance Company, and Birth to Three. I spent two years volunteering as a raptor handler/rehabilitator and docent at the Cascades Raptor Center. I thought I was well rounded. I felt I had a pretty open mind and lacked a judging attitude.
When I ran into my friend RuthAnn Rini lead pastor and founder of Unleashed Community Church I didn’t hesitate when asked if I would like to volunteer with her outreach at Pro Bone-O which offers free veterinary care for those who are homeless. I was to meet her and her lovely family at 8:30am at the local homeless shelter in our area.
Upon my arrival I was alone, and sitting outside on a donation box, watching men go back and forth with shopping carts full of their belongings. During my wait I was yelled at my a gentleman carrying a large quantity of eggs, and was told by a random passer by that he would call the people for me and let them know I was here! Well, no one showed up for me.
Getting nervous that RuthAnn wasn’t showing, I began noticing car after car driving into what looked like an abandoned building across the street. There was overgrown grass and barbed wire fencing. Sure! Let’s have a look! I got back in my car and drove through the gates. There in the front was the Pro Bone-O sign! My sense of joy and relief was stopped abruptly as I began driving through a crowd of at least fifty homeless people and their pets. If I was out of my element 15 minutes ago this brought me into a whole new realm of discomfort. Outside of offering my loose change and a free Mickey-Dee’s burger to the local corner squatters I couldn’t recall a time where I had interacted with someone who was visibly homeless.
I parked my car and got out. I was unsure of what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. The line from the movie What About Bob kept repeating in my brain…”I feel good. I feel great. I feel wonderful. I feel good. I feel great. I feel wonderful.” My armpits were soaked with nervous sweat, and my internal tremor was attempting to make a full on appearance. My judgments and pre-conceived notions of “these people” were raging. I couldn’t let them see my nervousness. Show no fear. Act like you know what you are doing. Did I lock my car?! Where was my phone?! What the hell have I gotten myself into?! During this time 15 more minutes had passed and the crowd reach 75 or more. I was at a loss on what to do.
Then, a old metal door opened and someone from inside came out. It hadn’t even occurred to me to open a door. A few minutes later…someone went in. This was my chance! In through the unknown door I went hoping to see RuthAnn’s smiling face. Of course there was no RuthAnn but there were about 10 volunteers scurrying about filling drawers with free leashes, collars, and harnesses; covering tables with free blankets, pet beds, treats and toys; searching filing cabinets for client information; checking dosages for the free flea treatment area; stapling intake forms; and completing countless other tasks.
Feeling accomplished that I had finally arrived I introduced myself. “I’m Kelly! I’m here to see RuthAnn and volunteer with Unleashed Community Church!” Blank faces went about their business. Completely awkward and feeling even less confident I repeated myself to the woman in charge of intake. She didn’t know who I was, who RuthAnn was, who Unleashed Community Church was but she was happy to allow me to shadow her. Feeling relieved to have found a friendly face who would slightly coddle me, I relaxed a little. I subsequently repeated who I was and who I was with a half dozen times. No one knew anything, but they did know they had a volunteer.
I was told to shadow different areas; intake, dog collars, and flea treatments while I awaited my orientation at 10:30 from Jeannie. I had no idea I needed to do an orientation, and had never met or spoken with Jeannie, whom everyone thought I was referring to when I spoke of RuthAnn.
My first official set of directions gave me a gut check. “See those treats? Take some, go out, meet the pets.” Excuse me…You want me to go out and meet scary people and their scary pit bulls and crazy cats? My mind was telling me “hell no!” But my do-good, volunteer, better half grabbed a handful of dog biscuits and headed out the door. I took a deep breath and began to walk around, meet dogs and talk to people. The most shocking thing happened. I wasn’t attacked. I wasn’t assaulted. I wasn’t bitten by a rabid pit-bull. I was greeted with kind stares, timid animals, appreciative words, and above all people who love their animals. People who care enough about their furry family members to make the journey to a bi-monthly clinic, waiting sometimes an entire day outside in whatever weather Oregon has to offer to get the care their animal deserves. Within minutes my walls were broken. My stereotypes crushed. I decided to make the rounds three times.
Some people were certainly “characters” in every sense of the word. One woman looked and dressed like the singer Pink. A Rastafarian gentleman explained what type of dog he was, and said that he had always wanted to be a giraffe when he grew up. His dream was of course shattered when his father told him he couldn’t be a giraffe, looks like a dog would have to do. There were healthy people, and very sick people. One particular woman had a large bleeding sore on her face and threw up right next to me. The shocking and wonderful thing about all of this is no one batted an eye. Not one client, and not one volunteer showed disgust or horror. They simply dealt with it like caring, empathetic human beings.
Two hours into my experience I thought what looked to be RuthAnn. I left the clinic and followed the fluffy blonde hair around the side of the building. And there they were. Unleashed Community Church doing their ministry. Passing out breakfast foods (which I had brought but were now being eaten by the mass of hungry volunteers), talking with clients. Being an ear to listen to anyone wanting to stop and chat a while. That was what I was supposed to be doing. Volunteer for Unleashed not Pro Bone-O. RuthAnn was delighted to see me and hear of my last two hours. I told her to wait a few mintutes and I would tell Pro Bone-O that I had indeed found the elusive RuthAnn and would now be passing out breakfast foods and chatting away with potential clients.
By the time I walked back to the clinic the “Jeannie” everyone told me about had arrived. I explained my mishap to everyone, thanked them for tolerating me and that I would be on my way. But God has a way of directing people. Sometimes it’s not our plan but His. Jeannie shook my hand and said “it looks the universe worked in our favor! You need to do orientation. We want you volunteering with us!” Without batting an eye. I said ok! An hour later I had a clear understanding of Pro Bone-O, the population they serve, and the services they provide.
In three and a half hours my world opened a little wider. Some stereotypes were broken. I went from nearly full-blown panic attack to a calm, helping heart. In a short period of time I developed a greater understanding of the people whos love for animals goes beyond class. For this time my personal struggles were gone, my eyes were seeing true struggle, true joy and true blessing.
I’ll now be volunteering with Pro Bone-O vet clinic, and will continue to work on my understanding of the world and the people in it.
Thank you RuthAnn for not giving me the clearest of instructions, and for your heart and service to our furry friends and those in need.