An easy smile and enthusiastic hello greeted me when I walked up the driveway of the Judeo Christian Outreach Center in Virginia Beach, VA on a sunny coastal day. It was Katie Livington that was cheerfully welcoming me like an old friend. Livingston was there to volunteer too on that day. She uses her talent as a hairdresser to help residents of living in the community and those relying on the soup kitchen maintain that freshly groomed look one needs in order to gain or maintain employment.
Katie had a hard luck story of her own. She is currently seeking employment. With an enthusiastic outlook that is contagious she doesn’t let it get her down. Instead, she focuses on how excited she is to help people. I watched her give a haircut to Roberto. He is also a volunteer, handling PR for the local chapter of the Kidney Foundation. Roberto said that he feels a sense of duty to do something productive instead of just sitting around. For this project I am excited to support Katie’s mission to provide her hygiene packs to residents of the shelter and those using the soup kitchen for a hot meal. These backs of toiletries help Virginia Beach residents in a time of housing crisis maintain their outward appearance. Obviously, that is demanded in the workplace and also has a big impact on one’s mental state as well.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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