We have all seen people in the news who volunteer during emergencies and help the needy. But what we almost never see or hear about are those who go out to make just someone smile.
It sounds simple. It is easy to make someone smile, right? But in some situations, it’s not as easy as you think.
My favorite way to volunteer is to take Honey, my three-year-old Havanese, and make people smile. Together we visit hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and memory care units and sit with patients. Honey, the true smile maker that she is, lets them pet and love on her. As soon as we walk in the door, we instantly see the smile start to form. Then the stories come and we are treated to tales about the pets from their childhood or ones they’ve had to leave behind.
Each location is a unique. The training I have been given allows me to determine the best approach with each person or family. Every facility has mandatory training on how to act and interact with those afflicted with dementia. In fact, at some facilities the training I have received is the same training their employees go through. Continuous training followed by continuous testing and sometimes I have felt it is over the top, “I’m only going in with a dog”. Then an emergency happens and I respond appropriately and as trained.
At hospitals Honey and I bring comfort to people who are worried, people who have just come out of surgery or some who have just received a life altering diagnosis. Children are always anxious waiting to see the doctor, and Honey knows just what to do. Some are nervously waiting on a loved one in surgery. They smile; sometimes they laugh; and maybe for a little while they relax. Honey has a way of calming and reassuring everyone.
Rehabilitation centers are fun for us but have their own challenges. This unique environment is dedicated to patients recovering from medical setbacks. The relaxing effect that Honey has on some folks is amazing. She has helped a patient get to sleep who pain level was so high he was having trouble sleeping. Sometimes in Rehab there are patients whose body has just been through so much trauma that they cannot get comfortable. In on such instance, Honey crawled into bed with him, cuddled up to his side and laid her head on his chest. He fell asleep while he was petting her. She did not move for 45 minutes and he could get some well-needed rest. Honey knows what’s needed.
Memory care units are magical when Honey makes a connection. The residents do not always know or understand why we are there. Because of the debilitating effects of Dementia or Alzheimer’s their brain just does not connect the dots. This is where patience is critical. As Honey settles down into their lap I will tell the person in a quiet voice about Honey, describing her personality, the softness of her fur and that she wants to visit. Honey sits quietly nosing a hand and waiting. It is so rewarding so see a small response, an eye movement, a hand moving to touch Honey. When Honey gets a smile, I just about loose it.
Several times when staff has been escorting us, the person starts telling us about pets they have had as kids. I have seen staff with tears because they have just witnessed the miraculous connections animals can make.
Being a volunteer is never easy and operating as a pet therapy team is a major commitment. It takes a lot of training and a lot of it with your dog. Honey has had formal training and was awarded the AKC Canine Good Citizen award. Then we went through testing with a nationwide organization to see how we work as a team. I needed to learn Honey’s signals; when she has had enough or the situation was stressing her. I must know when she is ready to quit for the day or when a patient is making her nervous. It’s been a lot of work but gratifying beyond belief and now we are a seasoned therapy team.
To me the volunteer time Honey and I put in is worth every minute. I am grateful for my bosses, Michael and Teresa Simpson who let me have the time to volunteer. In 2014, as a team, we logged over 120 hours of volunteering which is the equivalent of one million smiles.
So find something you that are passionate about; and find a way to volunteer. While there is no monetary reward, the emotional reward is priceless.
West Valley Visiting Angels