A couple weeks ago, our shelter manager created this awesome video during National Volunteer Week to highlight our shelter volunteers. You'll see my goofy face in there a few times. The first time I watched it, I just smiled all the way through, seeing such awesome examples of my fellow volunteers with our great animals at the shelter. Then I watched it again, and I'll come clean here, I completely broke down crying, sobbing by the end of it. I wasn't sure why it affected me so deeply that way at first, but then it hit me like a pile of rocks: the crystal clear revelation that what I was truly going to miss the most when we move to Tallahassee this summer is this shelter.
I've been volunteering at Jacksonville's Animal Care and Protective Services for more than three years now. In that span, I've photographed more than 1,000 animals for them. (You can see them in this Flickr set.) I've fallen in love with so many, from dogs I've photographed to kittens we've fostered. And this experience has changed my life profoundly. It's hard to explain really. I go in and photograph the dogs (and occasionally the cats), and I come home exhausted and stinky, covered in dog hair and dog slobber, and, yes, probably little bits of dog poop. Because you can't just stand back and take a photo, at least I can't anyway. I have to get down on the ground and love on those babies first. Their stories often break my heart, but when they are adopted into the right family, I can celebrate their new lives with their new families. And I know that my photos are a help in that process. I guess that's part of it.
So many people have misconceptions about animal shelters, maybe thinking of "the pound." There are also the misconceptions of the bully breeds, that these shelters are full of nothing but Pit mixes and that they are such horrible dogs. I guess it's my hope that my photos and my stories about those very dogs are helping to break those misconceptions. Pits aren't horrible dogs, unless you don't like being licked to death. They can be such lovers. And our shelter is awesome. Sure it can be loud, but it's bright and cheery, not a dungeon. The animals are very well cared for by both staff and volunteers who dedicate their lives to them. I think for our staff it's often a thankless job; I'm guessing shelter work probably doesn't pay much monetarily, but from what I've seen from our amazing staff, the "pay" they receive from helping save all these lives far more than makes up for the wages. As for us volunteers, no, we don't get paid any money. But we are there, day after day and week after week, loving on those animals, walking them, stuffing kongs, doing laundry, and yes, taking pictures, among a myriad of other volunteer opportunities. Because, really, we do get paid, handsomely. We get paid in slobbery kisses and gentle purrs, hugs from big goofy dogs and biscuits from quiet little cats. And the best payment is when we see an animal walk out that front door, tail wagging, a big happy smile looking up at his or her new family.
So yes, I cried when I watched this video. Big sloppy, red-faced tears. It reminded me how much I've gained from being there and how much this shelter has become a part of me, not how much the shelter has gained from my service. Does that make sense? That's what the right volunteer opportunity can do for you. By helping them, you help yourself. I know I will get involved with a shelter in Tallahassee, and I'm certain there will be great people and great animals there, too. But I think this shelter has become like my first love. You never forget your first love, do you? Well, I'm babbling by this point, and if I keep going much further, the tears will just start coming again. So, in all, thank you, Animal Care and Protective Services. You have enriched my life immeasurably, and I am forever grateful to have been given the opportunity to become a part of such an amazing team.