The KHS and our volunteers – a mutually beneficial relationship
Hot Off the Collar | Volume 10 | Photo above: Michelle Lee, KHS volunteer with “Charlie” before he was adopted
Recently, I had the privilege of talking to Michelle Lee, a longtime dog-walking volunteer for the Kingston Humane Society. Since we closed the shelter due to COVID 19 on March 17th, her absence and the absence of each of our volunteers has been difficult for all of us – staff and animals alike.
Over the last 11 years – longer than most of our staff has worked here – Michelle has been walking dogs and sharing her unique sense of humour. I always look forward to her visits. She makes me laugh, she has great vegan menu ideas and her love for every animal in the building is palpable.
The phone call started off as most do these days, sharing our stories of COVID isolation and ensuring everyone is doing okay through it all. When I asked her what she missed most, her answer was not exactly what I expected.
“No offense to you and your staff Gord, but I miss the dogs,” she said with a smile in her voice. “It’s been 11 years that I’ve been walking with my little furry treadmills and it never gets old. I’m seriously noticing a difference in my muscle tone since you guys closed the doors. I’m blaming COVID for that.”
I laughed out loud.
You might expect that someone who has spent so much time within and without our walls would be a bit affected or even dismayed by the things she had seen over the years. After all, as an animal welfare provider, we see things that most people don’t. It can be overwhelming and heartbreaking. You learn to develop coping mechanisms and humour is one of those. It reminds me of the old TV show M*A*S*H. The fictional surgeons on that show dealt with the horror of the Korean War by finding humour in the darkest corners. Our staff and our volunteers do the same.
Furry treadmills – that description was brilliant and I wanted to explore it further so I asked Michelle about some of the dogs that had provided her the biggest challenges. She didn’t have to think at all.
“Comet, a black lab mix, was one of the most bonkers dogs,” she recalled.
“She kept me on my toes and certainly improved my skills as a dog walker. I was sad for myself and happy for her on the day she went home. I wasn’t walking that day so when I came back in and they told me she’d been adopted, I cried but I cried happy tears for her.”
That’s a very typical response and we see it from so many of our volunteers. It says everything about their commitment to what we do and their connection to the animals in our care. During the moments that volunteers spend together with the animals the love is immediate and real and the compassion is all encompassing but they’re happiest when these temporary companions find a forever home.
As we wrapped up our conversation, I congratulated Michelle on her 11th anniversary as a KHS volunteer and I thanked her for everything she’s done for us. As I said that, it occurred to me that I had never really asked any of our volunteers about what the connection means to them. Now that we can’t have volunteers working side-by-side with our staff, this seemed like the right time to pose the question. What do you get from being a volunteer for the KHS?
“It means so much to actually go out and make a difference to another living creature,” she said.
“I’m giving a dog that would normally spend a lot of time in a kennel, an opportunity to get outside, get some exercise and to feel a bit normal.”
For the first time since I met Michelle more than a year ago, I could hear emotion creeping into her voice. I wondered how she might be affected if we had to go six months or even a year without opening our door to volunteers. Her response says it all.
“That would be harsh and I’d be really sad,” she said.
“I’m almost crying already but if that’s what we need to do to keep staff safe and the community safe then I’ll put it in the category of things I can’t change and look forward to the day that I can come back.”
We truly hope it won’t be that long but until they return we want to pass along our thanks to Michelle and to all of our volunteers for your understanding, your devotion and your unwavering support. We need you, the animals need you and perhaps now more than ever, we understand, you need them too.