Project 5: Larry “The Flag Man” Eckhardt in Brazil, IN June 2012

Flags fly in Covington thanks to Larry photo: Lean Keele

For my fifth project I volunteered with Larry “The Flag Man” Eckhardt.  While the purpose of 35 projects is to volunteer with nonprofits, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with someone that is making the world a little bit brighter for families in the Midwest that are left behind when a soldier dies.  I feel that what I was involved in on a sunny day in Brazil, IN, was one of the most important things I have ever done in my life.

When a soldier dies oversees while fighting in Afghanistan, the body is returned home to the family for burial.  While we all would like to see every returning soldier receive a hero’s welcome, very few of us know exactly what to do or how to react quickly in the haze of grief and sorrow to ensure that happens.  This is where Larry Eckhardt comes in.  Based in Little York, IL, Larry is your average citizen, a father, a grandfather, and a neighbor who works as a property manager.  However, he harbors a not-so-secret double life as a modern day superhero.  Since 2009 Larry has been traveling to the funerals of soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He arrives the day before the funeral with a trailer in tow that contains over 2,000 6 foot flags.  With the help of local volunteers, he lines the roadside of the impacted community with flags and sets the stage for a true hero’s welcome.  After all, when someone has given everything for your defense, the least you can do is say a proper thank you.

Spc. Arronn D. Fields

The Evening News Becomes Real
I heard about Larry when he was profiled on the CBS Evening news in May of 2012.  He had driven all night, 602 miles and 11 hours, to Sterling, KY.  He was there to erect flags for a tribute to PFC Dustin Gross, whom he had never met. Upon seeing 2,200 flags lining an 8 mile processional route, Pfc. Gross’ mom, Angie Brown, choked back tears and exclaimed about Eckhardt, “That’s somebody who’s got a heart right there.  I don’t think we could thank him enough. I really don’t.”

Through the wonders of Facebook, I was able to easily connect with Larry to assist him as he set up for his 88th military funeral.   Word spread that the flags would be put up in Brazil, Indiana for National Guardsman, Spc Arronn D. Fields.  The round-trip for me would be 882 miles. While I didn’t cherish the thought of a 13 hour round-trip by myself in one day with hours physical work wedged in the middle, I thought of Spc. Fields family and my sacrifice suddenly seemed very small. Spc. Fields died from injuries sustained during a rocket-propelled grenade attack on May 21 in Qal-ah-ye Mirza Jal, Afghanistan.  As reported by the local media, Spc. Fields had deployed in January with the 381st Military Police Company called Task Force Guardian. He had already served a tour in Iraq years earlier.

Flags going up in Brazil, IN near the cemetery

Brazil Bound

I had no idea what the volunteer turnout would be in Brazil.  When I rounded the corner on Route 340 and approached the meeting site, I only saw 3 vehicles.  I was a little worried.  With only a few pairs of hands to help, the flags were going to take hours to put up.  My budget for this trip was dedicated to gas and I had no money for a hotel room if the project ran late.  I drove a few more yards and realized that I was only seeing the far corner of the school lot.  Larry’s flag trailer sat in the parking lot surrounded by dozens of vehicles.  In all, over 200 volunteers turned out with trucks, sledgehammers, work gloves and water bottles.  It was an amazing site to behold. And to think that one man, coordinating with local VFW’s and fire halls to spread the word to possible volunteers, had made this happen.  Larry’s one-man obsession to honor the fallen was being embraced by a grateful community. I found this interesting because all causes start out as one person’s cause. But when you communicate your vision to others in a way that people understand and respond to, you can create something that will carry on long after you are gone.

Larry made the Northview High School in Brazil his home base and the community pitched in to load the (surprisingly heavy) flags into the back of several pickup trucks.  From there, a team of volunteers followed each truck. The flags had to be taken out of the back of the trucks, unfurled, and placed into the ground after a manual post-setter and sledgehammer team prepared a hole. I was amazed at the trust that was involved in being a part of that two-man team.  A slip of the wrist and a sledgehammer could  smash your hand.

 

A team of volunteers prepares the ground for a flag pole in Brazil, IN

Hard Work in the Hot Sun

I worked with volunteers from the area to put up some of the 2,200 flags.  As with the Fences for Fido build, this was plain hard work.  I told Larry my surprise at that fact and he laughed.  It wasn’t the first time he had heard that. He warns people that this is tough work. If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Larry, he’ll likely strike you as a kind-hearted, laid-back Midwesterner. He’s gone into personal debt to finance his elaborate displays and travels to attend funerals. He simply says someone needs to do it, so why not him?

Volunteering that day was an amazing experience.  I had expected it to be one of the saddest and emotional days of my life.  I was going to be in the middle of what had been my biggest fear throughout my brother’s two deployments in Iraq.  However, the flag project gave everyone in Brazil something to rally around. It’s not too often that tragedy strikes close to home and there is something that you can immediately get up and do to assist.  Larry offers that opportunity to communities in mourning.  While a hero’s welcome home put on by hundreds of residents can’t bring a loved one back, it is meaningful gesture and a wonderful way for the families to have their grief momentarily shouldered by the community.

Taking down the flags in Covington, IN photo credit: Kathy Hegg Waclaw

Marching On

Sadly, Brazil, Indiana wouldn’t be Larry’s only military funeral that week.  While I headed north towards Michigan, Larry’s journey would continue all week. When the flags were taken down on Wednesday, they traveled with Larry north to Covington.  Resident Lance Cpl. Joshua E. Witsman, 23, was serving in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of combat operations with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.  His decorations included the Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with two bronze star devices, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon with bronze star device, and the NATO Medal-ISAF Afghanistan.  He was another American hero honored by Larry “The Flag Man” Eckhardt that week.

 

Learn more about Larry at facebook.com/larry.t.eckhardt

If you’d like to donate to Eckhardt’s efforts, please mail him: 323 South Broadway Street, Apt. 1S, Little York, IL 61453

Memorial contributions in honor of Spc. Fields may be made to the Arronn Fields Scholarship Fund, in care of Riddell National Bank, 1 E. National Ave. Brazil, Ind., 47834.

Flags line the funeral procession route for a soldier in Covington, IN

Heidelberg Still Shines

 

Now in its 26th year of existence, the Heidelberg Project is an open air art project. For two blocks in the heart of an urban community on Detroit’s East Side, you can see everyday objects that have been tossed aside (think everything from stuffed animals to washing machines) repurposed in a vibrant community-based art installation. Using art to provoke thought, promote discussion, inspire action, and heal communities is the mission.

An exhibit in the same vein of creativity as Heidelberg is Philadelphia’s Magic Garden, a community art project put together by Isaiah Zagar. City dwellers bring cherished objects, like broken pieces of pottery or dishes, to be used in the display. Occupying lower South Street in Philly, Magic Garden is much more organized than Heidelberg.  I don’t think that is either good or bad. Art is subjective. And each brings its own unique gift to the community.

The Heidelberg feels gritty and chaotic, as if you can jump right in and start adding on, letting the art flow out of your soul. While it enrages the OCD side of me that wants clean lines, order, and items in their proper place, it can leave you with the feeling that there is creativity inside of you that can come out at any time.  You can feel the soul of the area residents as they express the sweet and the sour of life.

Heidelberg Project

The neighborhood in Detroit that houses this exhibit is a functioning urban neighborhood. As visitors milled around the exhibits and took photographs of sidewalks with polka dots and a two-story house covered on the outside with stuffed animals, residents went about their usual mid-week afternoon business, returning from errands, the beauty parlor and coming home from work.  Art and life collide in Detroit at the Heidelberg Project.

Carrie Collins-Fadell

Taking Root: Innovation From The Nonprofit Community

May 2012

www.heidelbergproject.org

Project 4: Earthworks Community Urban Garden in Detroit, MI May 2012

 

 

How deep can some lettuce get growing in a vacant field in the middle of Detroit? Literally, lettuce roots are about 6 inches deep, according to several online gardening forums. Figuratively, those roots run much deeper.

Earthworks is part of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen and was the scene of the crime for project number 4 of my 35 Projects. The urban farm aims to not only feed those without food that use the soup kitchen, but to reconnect individuals to the earth that nourishes them by showing them how to live in harmony with the earth and respect the nutritional value of the food the earth gives us. So, they want to reconnect us with a broken earth, attack poverty, combat an obesity epidemic and feed the hungry? Gosh, I love an organization with ambitious goals.

Aside from my recent and mildly successful forays with the Topsy Turvey, I haven’t participated in any gardening activities in about 15 years, but I enjoyed gardening throughout my childhood. My babysitter, Kay, would let me assist her in a garden where she grew cucumbers and snap peas. My family also did some recreational vegetable gardening, growing pumpkins, peppers, corn, and sunflowers. All of this took place during my childhood in rural Michigan, making it somewhat comical that my plunge back into gardening happened on the East Side of Detroit.


Carrie in 1982

A Community in Need  

In the Michigan nonprofit community, Capuchin Soup Kitchen stands out as a highly respected organization. They’ve earned their reputation by filling a real local need and doing an amazing job at it.  Hunger and the lack of means to provide meals with nutritional value is a real issue in many cities across America, and Detroit is certainly no exception. The absence of both grocery stores that sell fresh produce in the city and public transportation to get to the few that do only serve to compound the city’s nutritional issues.

Detroit does have an abundance of one thing: vacant land. This has led to an urban farming movement that has had mixed results. One of the most successful members of the movement, Earthworks Urban Farm was started by Brother Rick Samyn in 1997. It now not only grows produce for the soup kitchen, but provides a teen vegetable stand, jam making in the fall, and bee keeping.

 

Getting Started  

The project I assisted on was weeding a vacant tract of land named Donna’s Plot. When I arrived, it was an overgrown mess of weeds with city trash mixed in – broken glass, an errant hair extension that had been discarded during what I hoped wasn’t the commission of a crime. As a testament to the battle scars of a large urban city, two vacant houses framed one corner of the plot.

The enthusiastic team leader from Earthworks, Roxy, was on site working with us. I am sure she quickly realized that she had won some sort of nonprofit lottery having me on board. I have not kept up on my gardening tools. A student handed me what I assumed was a gardening hook. It didn’t have a sharp end and I ended up exchanging it for a saddle hoe that I barely knew how to use properly. It turned out to be broken (or I broke it, I’m not sure which). At any rate, I picked up a metal rake and settled in for some hard work in the hot sun. In addition to paid workers, volunteers ranged from people interested in sustainable growing practices and university students from nearby Wayne State University to students from the University of Massachusetts AmeriCorps program in Detroit on an alternative spring break program.

Weeding and planting will come later. Since I am not too far from Earthworks, I plan to volunteer there a few times this year, watching the plot of land produce the herbs and participating in transplanting, watering, and harvesting the food that I helped to grow and serving it in the soup kitchen. I would also like to donate some gardening tools to use on the farm.

 

Hey dreamers, can you see a thriving herb garden here?

My Journey

When I started this adventure, I wanted to learn more about the nonprofits that are truly keeping this country together. I have come to find out (as I type this with blistered hands) that while I am doing that, I am learning a few things about myself as well. For example, I am enjoying learning about compost, and I am enjoying weeding and planting on Detroit’s east side. Who knew? I do know that I am excited for the 31 other projects still to come over the next eight months.

For more information on Earthworks: http://www.cskdetroit.org/EWG/

The Lisa Harris Pink Ribbon of Hope Sip For A Cure

 

The Lisa Harris Pink Ribbon of Hope Fund is maintained in honor of Lisa Harris by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, a 501 C3. Lisa was a dynamic and vibrant member of the Port Huron, Michigan business community, as well as a beloved mother, sister, daughter, and wife. She was taken far too soon after a courageous fight with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Lisa’s family honors her by doing great things for her community through the established fund. While there are many voluntary health nonprofits dedicated to raising research funds, an important endeavor indeed, The Pink Ribbon of Hope Fund is dedicated to making the community a more comfortable place for families fighting cancer.

This year The Pink Ribbon of Hope will support both Hunter House, a home away from home for those with loved ones in the hospital battling cancer, and Blue Water Hospice Home’s garden.  A true artist and a unique soul, Lisa expressed her creativity through her home furnishings business. Not surprisingly, Lisa’s family has chosen some unique and creative ways to honor her and raise funds to support the charity that bears her name. In May of 2012, the family held the third annual Sip for a Cure fundraiser on the rooftop at the Vintage Tavern. Far from a somber event, Sip for a Cure reflected the way Lisa embraced life, with a fierce smile on her face. Everything her family does in her memory honors that spirit.

The rooftop event treated everyone to a spectacular view. On the horizon, large metal cranes lay silent, waiting for work on a new construction project. Lake Huron loomed in the distance absent of boaters and swimmers.  In every corner of the event glasses clinked, old friends embraced, new friends laughed, food was served, and life happened. The grey sky in the background cast just a hint of somberness over the upbeat event, reflecting the daily sadness faced by those of us left behind. It was a reminder that while Lisa’s loved ones will move on, a piece of us is forever gone. Kudos to Lisa’s family for honoring Lisa’s spirit in a way that will help other families struggling with cancer and make the world a better place.

 

 

Carrie Collins-Fadell

Taking Root: Innovation From The Nonprofit Community

May 2012

 

Lisa Harris

 

http://www.stclairfoundation.org/funds/more/lisa_harris_pink_ribbon_of_hope_memorial_fund

Giving PAWS in Philadelphia

 

Recently I was in Philadelphia for about four hours, just enough time to get a Philly Cheese steak and take in a few sights. After I made the nearly impossible decision on whether to have a Pat’s or Geno’s steak, I became familiar with Philadelphia’s only no-kill shelter.  The Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society or PAWS as it is lovingly known by supporters and fans is one of the Keystone State’s true gems.

PAWS needs volunteers to help facilitate monetary donations, spread the no-kill shelter philosophy, foster animals and promote animals available for adoption. Volunteers stopping by for the day can help animals stay socialized while they wait for their new fur-ever homes, help out with office work and participate in general upkeep of the shelter. Event volunteers are also needed. PAWS has a packed event calendar filled with everything from  traditional pet shelter adoption events to a fundraising dunk tank at Beer Week, and a National Hockey League Philadelphia Flyers fundraiser. They are clearly an organization on the move and in touch with the thriving city whose pets they are saving.

Waiting for you!

All of PAWS’ efforts are privately funded and are aimed at reducing the homeless pet population, keeping pets healthy, and ending the city’s use of euthanasia as a means of population control for healthy and treatable pets.  This means they save lives. Period. PAWS is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. PAWS is also selling calendars and t-shirts through their website to support their work. Learn more at www.phillypaws.org

 

 

 

 

Carrie Collins-Fadell

Taking Root: Innovation From The Nonprofit Community

May 2012

nom nom nom

 

 

Project 3. The Pongo Fund in Portland, OR April 2012

A food bank for pets – what kind of charity is that? At first glance, the idea might look frivolous. There are so many hungry people in America, after all; why worry about pets? However, if you had just lost your job and you were struggling to feed your long-time furry family members or thinking about how you are going to explain to your son that you have to choose between dropping his beloved dog off at a shelter or paying for daddy’s hospital bills, you wouldn’t think it was ridiculous. When you look at the problem of hunger as a whole, a pet food bank is not only a compassionate, but a sensible idea.

The Pongo Fund Wharehouse

The concept that has filled Pacific Northwest pet bowls 3 million times since 2009 was born one fall when founder Larry Chusid saw a homeless couple in Portland. He inquired if they were going to have food for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. They replied that they did, but the soup kitchen didn’t have pet food. This meant that the dogs received part of the meals meant for their owners. Everyone was still hungry and no one was getting the proper nutrition. Whether they are living under a bridge in Oregon or barely making the mortgage payment in suburbia, hungry people have hungry pets.

Larry took the couple a bag of high-quality pet food the next day. Thus began a brand new chapter in the fight to reduce the population of unwanted pets in animal shelters in Oregon and across the nation. You see, if you help a family keep their pets through an emergency situation, the pets stay out of already overcrowded shelters and with the people who love them. Lives are saved and families remain intact, fur members and all.

The Pongo Fund on food distribution day, June 10, 2012. They gave away 29,000 meals that day.

For 35 Projects, I want to look at nonprofit ideas that need to be replicated across the country, and I had been interested in the work that The Pongo Fund does for quite some time. My friend Sarah, a regular Pongo volunteer, made the arrangements. I thought this would be a fun gig, volunteering at Pongo. After all, I got to be with Sarah, a friend I love spending time with, and a new friend, Amy, who I met at the Fences for Fido build the day before. On Sunday morning, I drove across town and parked at the convention center. Walking up to the warehouse with a smile, full of anticipation about buying a Pongo Fund t-shirt, I was stopped in my tracks by the image awaiting me: the line of pet owners wrapped around the building. And this was hours before it opened. I was dumbfounded. The food is distributed two Sundays a month on a first-come, first-serve basis. These owners were desperate to feed their pets, and they were willing to queue up in the hot sun (yes, it was sunny in Portland that weekend) for hours to do it.

 

Meeting Larry

Larry greeted me right away and gave me my assignment. Larry is high energy, organized, and very particular. You can tell that he is the heart and soul of Pongo. He is hands on and in charge. If you were to call Pongo right now, Larry might even answer the phone. While Larry’s management style might seem rigid at first blush, the bottom line is that you don’t accomplish what he has by not knowing exactly how you want things done. Without Larry’s vision and drive, there would be a lot of empty bowls.

When you volunteer at Pongo, you are in a warehouse stacked with pallets of pet food. The many people in line must be interviewed one by one to verify their need and moved into a waiting room resembling a doctor’s office. My job was moving individuals from the waiting room to the warehouse, where they accepted their prepared order of pet food based on the size and number of pets that they had to feed.

I came prepared to work. I wasn’t prepared for what an emotional experience volunteering at Pongo would be. After all, working in the voluntary health sector of the nonprofit world, I am around frank talk about disease and dying every day. The raw emotion that Pongo stirred up was hard for me to handle. Even though finances haven’t always been a bed of roses for my husband and me, we have never been at point where we had to consider pulling up to an animal shelter and surrendering our pets, including one that we have had for 11 years. I imagined how hard it would be to pull out of the shelter parking lot and point the car towards the house that wasn’t a home without them. I imagined what it would be like to leave your best friend, maybe old and arthritic, at the shelter knowing that they would wonder what they had done wrong and likely be euthanized, dying alone and before their time.

Holly’s Story

The economy has given most of us a good thrashing the past few years. Many of the families that are utilizing Pongo or the handful of other pet food banks across the country that have sprung up its likeness never dreamed they would be standing in line for help. They often pictured themselves on the other side, donating to charity. Holly Varner of Michigan had worked for a decade and a half for the same local company. She described what happened next: “They just shut the doors one day and it was all over. That was it.” Unemployment helped her and her small family (daughter Ada, age 7, and her three dogs, Lucy, Lila, and Sammy) get by for a little while, but before long that ran out. “I remember sitting there thinking that I couldn’t afford to feed my dogs,” Varner explained. “It was so hard. They’re my family too. We’ve had than for longer than my daughter had been alive. I just couldn’t bear the thought of having to give them up to the shelter. It was as low as I can remember being.”

Gabe’s Gang, a pet food bank in Southeast Michigan, was there to help her pick up the pieces until she could find a new job and feed her family on her own. And there are stories just like Holly’s from 22,000 other families Pongo has served. I saw it on the faces of the people that had come for help that Sunday, and it touched me. One woman wheeled an elderly dog around in a baby stroller. I would imagine that some individuals that were there that day no longer had any human family left. The pets they were desperate to feed were truly their best (and maybe only) friends. At the front of the line that day was a woman who had just been released from the hospital after emergency surgery; she was there to ensure her pet could eat that day despite her doctor’s orders to stay in bed. Out of work and now with medical bills, this was her only option. She looked like she could have been me or any one of my friends.

I left Pongo and I cried. I cried for the rest of the afternoon. I cried through lunch with a friend in town from Anchorage, I cried while I was driving, I cried while washing my muddy laundry from the day before. I’ve been in either the public service or nonprofit industry my entire adult life and Larry, his operation, and the people that need him impacted me to my core.

On With My Journey

Part of the purpose of 35 Projects is to not only encourage destination volunteering, but to highlight ways that you can fit volunteering into your normal work or leisure travel. I planned this trip to volunteer and see some friends. While in Portland on Pacific Standard Time, I took advantage of the time difference: I was up and functioning at 4 a.m. and enjoyed a sunrise treat from the legendary 24-hour Voodoo Doughnut in Portland. Voodoo is an international tourist attraction and serves 90 different flavors of doughnuts, including the bacon maple. You can even get married at Voodoo under a velvet Elvis picture. I didn’t get married that morning or have a doughnut with bacon, but I did get to take a few photographs of the Skidmore fountain without anyone around.

A bacon maple creation from VooDoo Doughnut

The Pongo Fund is Oregon’s pet food bank. Their mission is to save dogs and cats from being surrendered to overcrowded shelters when their families cannot afford to feed them. And they do a damn good job of it.

 

For more information on The Pongo Fund visit www.thepongofund.org

The Pongo Fund is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity and donations are tax-deductible.

 

 

A special thank you goes out to a dear friend, Amy M., for providing the housing that made this trip a possibility.

 

And a huge thank you to Larry Chusid, founder of The Pongo Fund.  He indeed has what his volunteers describe as a heart of gold.  For me, being able to witness the thriving nonprofit that he built himself was amazing.

 

 

Project 2. Fences For Fido in Portland, OR April 2012

Recently I heard actor Michael J. Fox give an interview where he discussed his view on life. Stricken with a debilitating disease with visible symptoms, Fox discussed his positive outlook and motivation to live life on his terms, no matter what curve ball is thrown at him. One of his most poignant pieces of advice was on keeping it simple. Fox said, “Look, if you want to do something, go do it. Don’t sit there and invent reasons not to.”

I was struck by the power and the truth of his statement. You can sit there and talk about something for weeks, analyzing and fretting, or you can get up and get things done. You might say that Fences For Fido co-founders, Kelly Peterson and Andrea Kozil, live by a similar philosophy. Sick of hearing stories about dogs forced to languish at the end of chains and exposed to the elements year after year, Peterson and friends chose to create an organization to change that, one dog at a time. Their vision became real in Fences For Fido. As the second volunteer group in the United States dedicated to building free fences for dogs confined to chains, this all-volunteer organization was patterned after the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, started in 2006 by The HSUS’s Spay Neuter Initiatives Manager Amanda Arrington in North Carolina.

Almost 300 and Counting

Fences For Fido unchained its first dog in May of 2009. Since then, it has changed the lives of almost 300 dogs in the Portland area. This group drew my attention because they are an all-volunteer nonprofit, meaning not even one of them takes a salary, and the volunteers must have some serious responsibilities that would normally be covered by paid staff. I wanted to see how this plays out during a large volunteer operation.

Fences For Fido’s work benefits not only for the dog and its family, but the community as a whole. Dogs chained for unending periods of time will react in one of two ways: they will become listless and depressed, or violently aggressive. As pack animals, dogs thrive with socialization and companionship. Living life alone and chained can change a dog’s natural gentle temperament into a threatening one. It’s no coincidence that, according to the Centers for Disease Control states, chained dogs are 2.8 times more likely to bite than unchained dogs. A chained dog who gets loose can pose a real threat to a neighborhood.

Volunteers work on Bear's fence

I worked for Fences For Fido as my second project. I made arrangements to volunteer using Fences For Fido’s efficient online system to register for its weekly builds, which would be a point of pride for any organization. The outreach coordinator who welcomed me to the build in Woodburn, OR, was Melinda Miller. Melinda has supported the organization through several builds. Not only is she a great wealth of knowledge, but she is so encouraging towards the newbie volunteers. Being from out of town, I was treated like a VIP with a special introduction and Facebook postings from Fences For Fido announcing that someone from Michigan was volunteering with the group. I met everyone on the team and we got straight to work. A volunteer’s truck pulled in with all of the fence supplies. Fence posts were set, wire was cut, a flurry of activity was happening. My team was tasked with cutting yards of ground wire and bending it so that it was ready to make the enclosure escape-proof.

 

Do you need any help over here?

The Incredible Mr. Bear

Of course, at the center of this was the beneficiary of our morning of work, a gregarious and lovable dog named Bear. A gentle soul, Bear eagerly soaked in our attention and stayed on site for the entire build as we transformed his world from a small plastic igloo doghouse and a tie line to a deluxe fenced-in yard. One of Bear’s people led him around the yard on a leash during the build so that he could inspect. It reaffirmed for me what Fences For Fido has found over the course of dozens of builds: that chaining a pet 24/7 is often the result of a complex set of circumstances. Many families simply do not have the financial resources to build a fence, even though they often do love their pets and want the best for them. Unchaining the dog can facilitate an entire different relationship between the pet and the family, with less guilt from the owners and more socialization to improve the dog’s mental state, which leads to reduced aggression. When Fences For Fido approaches a family about upgrading their fido’s housing with a fence, doghouse, and vet care, some are so overwhelmed with pet ownership that they simply give their dogs up to re-home. Fences For Fido will take them and facilitate the transfer into a loving home when necessary.

 

Bear wants to make sure that you see his new house and comfy straw.

The Show-Off and the VIP Guest

On the build site, Bear had already received a cozy new large doghouse with a shingled roof built to withstand the Pacific Northwest winters from Fences For Fido and he was hamming it up, showing it off. After the build, Bear’s family would allow Fences For Fido volunteers to take him for his second ever car ride for a vet appointment and a good grooming. The mats in Bear’s fur had formed almost into dreadlocks, giving him what volunteers dubbed a Rastafarian look.

Working with Fences For Fido was an amazing experience. While the outreach coordinators and fundraising volunteers had been working for months behind the scenes, from the point of view of the day’s volunteers, things happened fast. The fence was done by noon, even though we had just started at 8 that morning. Being the VIP guest that day (it still makes me laugh), I was able to hang the Fences For Fido plaque on Bear’s fence and release Bear for the first time in his enclosure. This is the magic moment and a sweet spot of the day. Here the formerly chained dog relearns how to run, play, and essentially be a dog without the chain snapping his head back, bringing him to a stop. Since Bear had been onsite all day, his release was a little less dramatic. Walking cautiously over to a volunteer for some pets, Bear then chased after a dog toy thrown by the volunteer. Instead of running straight towards the toy, as you would expect a dog to do, bear turned left and then traveled on the path that he had worn into the earth. This was the path that he had to travel day after day as a chained dog. Bear repeated that a few more times before he began to deviate from what had previously been the only path that his chain had allowed him to take.

For Bear and the others, once you are a Fences For Fido client, they stick with you for the long haul. With twice yearly check-ins by the outreach coordinator, Fences For Fido dogs and the families that love them receive education on keeping the fido safe during the heat of the summer and the cold of winter. Every dog who receives a fence also gets a sturdy new doghouse furnished with a durable, handmade bed, free or reduced-cost spay/neuter, and other urgent veterinary care. Training consults are available if the dog has behavioral issues. Volunteers deliver seasonal care packages of treats, flea treatment, new beds, and other goodies and check the condition of the fence. It is amazing to witness a dog sighing contently in their new house as their small, uncomfortable, and unprotective shelter lays discarded off to the side. When you see that, the chain tossed aside, you are reminded of how far they have come.

Smokey - chained and alone, miles from anyone

Smokey’s Fund

I also became interested in and made a donation to Smokey’s Fund. Smokey was found alone and chained on a hill by an animal lover who stumbled upon him while searching for a lost cat. Chained for nine years in deplorable conditions, Smokey had mats the size of softballs hanging from his long collie fur. Poor nutrition, constant exposure to the elements, no exercise, untreated infections, and general lack of veterinary care had left him deaf (one of his eardrums had disintegrated from infection) with a paralyzed larynx, severe arthritis, and degenerative joint disease. Smokey’s “owner” allowed him to be taken away by the kind person that happened upon him and simply couldn’t bear to leave him there to live that life for one more day. This was before Fences For Fido existed. Some people had probably even seen Smokey but had no idea how to help or whom to call. This isn’t the case anymore thanks to Fences For Fido’s amazing volunteers.

Smokey after his rescue

Once rescued, Smokey received much needed veterinary care and constant love and attention – but he suffered for the rest of his life from being chained and neglected all those years. He had three good years with a family that loved him, and this fund will ensure his legacy lives on forever. You can learn more about Smokey and the animals that his fund has helped at: http://www.fencesforfido.org/node/172

Smokey’s Fund at Fences For Fido

Builds fences & provides houses for dogs who have lived for more than 5 years chained.

Provides comprehensive veterinary care and medications for these physically suffering dogs.

Helps facilitate the rescue & adoption of these dogs.

Supports educational efforts about the physical suffering and illness that result from a dog being chained.

 

Fences For Fido is a 501c3. Donations are tax-deductable and can be made at www.fencesforfido.org or mailed to P.O. Box 42265, Portland, OR 97242

Bear after a grooming appointment

Thank you to Melinda Miller and all of the volunteers at Fences For Fido for a truly unforgettable experience.

A special thank you to my wonderful friend, Amy M., who generously gave me a place to stay, making this trip a possibility. She believed in this project and encouraged me when I wasn’t even sure what I was doing or that anyone would be interested. Turns out she was absolutely right!

 

Thank you! Everyone I volunteered with was helpful and welcoming

Project 1: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX Feb. 2012

 

The Wildflower Center

I hate cold-calling. Is anyone really any good at it? I called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in January to tell them about this crazy idea that I had called 35 Projects. This is my first real pitch, I thought. How this goes might even be indicative of how the overall project will go. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Well, I pretty much crashed and burned on my first pitch. I didn’t get a no, but I certainly didn’t get a yes. I don’t blame the communications department for being slightly skeptical. My website wasn’t up yet and my Facebook page only had one like… my own. I probably sounded like a crazy woman. In the end, I emailed a volunteer coordinator and asked if I could volunteer for just one day. I was going to be in Texas visiting family, and could I stop by Friday morning? I received an immediate yes and quickly learned that the LBJ Wildflower Center is a well-oiled machine when it comes to volunteers – they have dozens of them. This got my attention after working for so many nonprofits that have a difficult time keeping productive volunteers engaged. In 2011, the $4.4 million dollar organization had volunteers that gave over 34,000 hours of service.

 

Big ideas and other things that you want to forget at 5am

On Friday morning, I remembered another thing about volunteering; namely, that it can require getting up early, which sucks when you are dealing with jet lag and slept on a love seat all night that is two feet shorter than you are. Add this to the fact that I would rather sleep in and take a margarita lunch on a patio somewhere in the Texas sun and you have an all-out bad attitude brewing. Had I not already told so many people about the idea, I might have been tempted to go back to sleep, conjure up some of my famous procrastination, and wait until next year. 36 Projects has kind of a nice ring after all, doesn’t it?

Instead, I got on the road heading up to the Wildflower Center and even cajoled my mother into join me. She was in an even fouler mood than I was. When a Sonic breakfast burrito and strong coffee couldn’t even turn things around, I was excited to see that at least I come by my occasional bad attitude honestly. When my mother gets like this about one of my crazy ideas I start doubting myself, immediately. No matter how doubtful I felt about an entire year of 5 a.m. weekends on top of my demanding work schedule, it was too late to quit. After all, I had a website for cripes sake; no turning back now. We drove through the grey, drizzling morning and arrived at the center. Once again, Texas had experienced a record drought in the moths prior to my visit. By some accounts, seventy percent of Texas received only one-half of their annual rainfall during the previous summer. This made the work of the Wildflower Center even more important as they scrambled to continue promoting sustainable lawns and landscapes while protecting native species. The center even produces its own drought-resistant lawn seed, eliminating the need to decide between scorched lawns and high water bills.

Wildflower Center Volunteer Name Badges

Getting your hands dirty

I was sent a map and detailed instructions on where to park and enter the Wildflower Center prior to my arrival, a further testament to their level of organization. As soon as I walked in the door of the volunteer meeting room, it was clear that volunteers are valued. Later on, it would also become clear that they work hard, but for now I gazed in jealousy at a bulletin board with hundreds of volunteer name badges clipped onto a wire grid. Finding, training, and retaining dedicated volunteers is a constant battle for nonprofits. How to reward someone when their work is valuable but you can’t show that with money is the question nonprofits struggle to answer.

I was introduced to other workers and we were quickly whisked away to the greenhouse for an introduction to the day’s project. We would be sowing seeds into small containers. The seedlings would be transplanted when they started to grow, and eventually, be planted around the center or sold for profit during a garden fundraiser. With ticket sales down in the blazing heat as much as 30 percent, I was told by volunteers that the plants that we were growing were a vital source of income. Great, no pressure though, right?

The work was fun and the team I was on, Team Trouble, made it all the more interesting. The seeds were small, had to be counted, and were often light as air, appearing almost like dried-up wisps. Trying not to mess anything the hell up would be a constant theme for the morning. Each seed type had its own mysterious requirements as to how many seeds were to be planted in each little pod and how much dirt to cover the seeds with. Our morning projects moved along at a fast pace. This was partially due to the inclement weather. There was a group of male volunteers in the middle of a large door/frame replacement project that was put on hold in the rain. People tend to enjoy doors on buildings not being removed in the middle of a rainstorm, for whatever reason. These gentlemen were assisting us instead. I learned that each doorframe that they could replace saved the Wildflower Centers thousands of dollars. At the time they were on their fifth or sixth door. This was a great reminder that nonprofit organizations need a variety of skill-sets.

 

An idea solidifies

Tags Identify Planted Seeds

As I planted trays of future seedlings, I could see my idea for a year spent volunteering whenever and wherever I could, even destination volunteering, take shape that day. My mom and I had flown into Austin just a few hours earlier knowing only three people in the entire town. While we worked and chatted the morning away, we made new friends, got a real feel for the city as the locals see it, and picked up some great restaurant and entertainment recommendations.

In the coming days, my mom and I talked about our volunteer experience with as much or even more excitement than the other stops we made in the city that we had never visited before. I left the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the city of Austin hopeful that both the seeds I had planted that weekend and 35 Projects would take root and thrive, growing to their full potential.

 

 

For more information about the fabulous Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the important role that they play visit: www.wildflower.org