When my illness forced me to stop working the first time, in 1999, I felt lost and useless. Not having somewhere to go every day was really depressing. I had to find something to distract me from self-pity, but my weak body and fragile mind limited my choices. I explored volunteer options and discovered a class offered by the Research department at the zoo called Observing Animals: Behavioral Studies in Zoos. It met once a week from September to December, and required several hours of animal observation per week. I thought I could handle that, so I took the class and applied to be a Research volunteer.
After a few months of helping with Research projects, I was feeling pretty well, so I applied for the zoo’s Docent program. I got accepted, and started a 26-week class. My main assignment would be teaching and touring school children one morning each week, so I learned all about plants, animals, conservation and species preservation. Touring youngsters made me nervous because I had zero experience with them, and wasn’t sure I was strong enough to walk around the zoo. But once I started leading little groups of seven and eight year olds to exhibits, sharing my new knowledge, I felt like a kid myself, and found I could do it.
Five years of “docenting” led to me getting hired as the coordinator of volunteer programs, which I really enjoyed. But after just one year, I got sick again. That was when I got Henry, my service dog for support. With his help, I worked seven more years. In 2014, when my illness took me down again, I had to resign. After a year, I got a little strength back, and returned as a Research volunteer, this time with Henry. Two hours each week we go to the Research office and help file data.
Last week Henry and I were given this amazing award for our efforts. I love it because it was hand made by a Research employee named Ruthie. In fact, it’s so cool, I had to write this post to show you.
You were probably thinking I wrote this to brag about getting an award, but I really just wanted to show off Ruthie’s talent. Having one of her creations is an honor. Thank you Ruthie!
Volunteering helps me so much, and I feel lucky to be able to help out at the zoo. If you are looking for something to lift your spirits, I highly recommend volunteering. If the zoo doesn’t rock your world, there are other options. I explored numerous options until I found a couple that worked for me. Henry and I volunteer at an animal hospital, doing a few hours of data entry each week. The work is not physically taxing, and the owner understands when I’m not well enough to come in.
We also found a home as a volunteer in the Medical Staff Record department of a local people hospital. Mostly I assemble newsletters and help file, but I act as a librarian in their little medical library too, cataloging all their journals and periodicals.
With all my volunteer jobs, I’ve made a point of letting my supervisors know my physical and emotional limitations. That way I don’t feel any pressure to perform.
When I was working, I was always afraid of getting fired for being sick, and went out of my way to appear as normal and healthy as possible. It was exhausting. But volunteer jobs give me the freedom to honor my limitations and go home when I’m tired.
If you’re interested in exploring your options, here are some websites:
Please visit my Volunteer page for more info.