When I retired from a long career in higher education, I looked forward to exploring new interests and opportunities, including volunteering for the causes I care most about.
I already knew that volunteering was good for the community. Many non-profit organizations could not achieve their missions without volunteers. Recently, the Independent Sector calculated the monetary value of one volunteer hour in America to be $31.80, although that varies from state to state, depending on local wages.
In exchange for their time, volunteers gain experience, knowledge, and skills. In connecting with like-minded others, they develop a sense of shared purpose, along with greater confidence and self-esteem.
But I didn’t know that volunteering can improve your health. Research shows that it reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. It provides mental stimulation and new opportunities for problem-solving, which, for older adults, can help mitigate cognitive losses. The Mayo Clinic reports that volunteering can reduce depression and anxiety, especially for people 65 and over, and is linked to lower mortality rates, even when controlling for age, gender, and physical health (“Helping People, Changing Lives,” 2021).
Plus, the more we volunteer, the better we feel! According to a recent AmeriCorps report, those who volunteer over 100 hours a year are some of the healthiest people in the United States, regardless of age (“40 Volunteer Statistics That Will Blow Your Mind,” 2023).
One explanation for these health benefits is that, when we volunteer for a cause we care deeply about, we connect with something larger that is life-affirming.
Now that I have been volunteering for several years, I have discovered a lesser-known benefit that researchers haven’t yet documented: it can teach us life lessons and deeper truths.
Here, for example, are three things I have learned from volunteering at an animal shelter.
(1) There is a place for everyone.
Animals end up in shelters for many reasons, but they usually involve stress and hardship for the animals, and often for the people involved.
Sometimes the animals arrive in poor condition and need time for rest and rehabilitation. Sometimes they are not well-trained or socialized and need to learn new behaviors before they can be adopted. Sometimes they have disabilities and chronic illnesses that adopters must learn to work with — blindness, deafness, missing limbs, neurological disorders, arthritis, and diabetes.
But, in working at a no-cage, no-kill cat shelter, I have observed that, regardless of their condition, everyone, eventually, finds a home. The cat who distrusts people becomes a barn cat for the farmer who needs a mouser; the elderly cat gets adopted by an elderly woman who doesn’t want to outlive her pet; the cranky, anti-social cat is taken home by a self-described loner who appreciates their shared temperament; the clingy lap cat goes home with the person needing a therapy pet; and the extroverted cat who seeks constant attention gets adopted by a local businessman to greet customers.
Some people deliberately choose animals with special needs. They may have special needs themselves, or they may just want to support the “underdog.” Every few months, somebody comes into the shelter and says, “I want to adopt the cat that nobody else wants.”
The lesson is this: If we are patient and keep an open mind and heart, we will see a place and purpose for everyone.
(2) Keep the big picture in mind.
I have heard people say, “I could never work at an animal shelter, it would be too sad.” It is sad sometimes, but it’s manageable when you think of shelter work as part of something bigger.
Shelters play an important role in a larger mission to address the root causes of animal homelessness. They not only find homes for animals but also educate the public and advocate for change.
The number of free-roaming cats is a major problem in many communities. While 80-85% of pet cats are spayed or neutered, less than 10% of feral cats are fixed, and the population multiplies quickly. An un-spayed female can get pregnant as young as four months and be mated by more than one male, including brothers and fathers, in the same period. She can get pregnant three times a year and have an average of four kittens per litter.
That’s why shelters support trap and neuter programs. Our shelter makes humane traps available to the public and teaches people how to use them. We offer low-cost spay and neuter vouchers to motivate people to fix the strays in their neighborhood, as well as their own pets.
We also teach people about cats and how to modify their pets’ behavior when they are acting out (attacking other animals, hiding, spraying, not using the litter box, clawing the furniture), which is one reason people surrender their cats to shelters.
We try to create an informative, welcoming environment so that people want to support their local shelter. We know that good customer relations translate into more animals helped over time, including “more adoptions, a larger cache of volunteers, more donations, positive perceptions of shelter and rescue staff, and a supportive community” (Animal Friendly—Customer Smart, 2016).
The lesson is this: The best way to keep from being defeated by the sad things in the world is to become informed and join with those who are trying to make things better. As Mister Rodgers advised generations of children: “Look for the helpers,” and then become one yourself.
(3) Find your inspiration.
Working at an animal shelter can be challenging, and it requires inner resources. It is important to find what inspires you and to tap into that source of positive energy on a regular basis.
I meet many people at the shelter and in the community who inspire me with their knowledge, kindness, and generosity. I also get inspiration from the animals themselves.
Shelter animals are resourceful and resilient. They are often eager to give and receive love. When I am feeling bored or depressed, I visit some cats. Invariably, after a few head bumps, purrs, and body rubs, I feel better. From spring through early fall, I can enjoy the company of adorable kittens (without having to take them home). They run and leap, play and posture, watch and learn. Their youthful exuberance makes me smile and gives me hope for the future.
The lesson is this: In difficult situations, it is easy to become overwhelmed and focus on the negatives (There are so many homeless animals! We’re barely able to make a dent in the problem!) It’s better to focus on the progress you’ve already made, do the best you can in the here and now, and tap into your sources of inspiration for the motivation to keep going.
Anything is Possible
And then there’s Crash, the only cat who resides permanently at our shelter. Not only does he inspire us, but lately he has inspired countless others across America.
Crash was so named when our executive director rescued him four years ago after he was hit by a car. He endured several operations to remove an eye and repair a broken jaw and leg and then went through months of physical therapy. The staff came to appreciate his quirky personality and decided to give him a forever home. Crash appears on our website and helps raise awareness and generate support.
This year, our outreach coordinator entered Crash in the Cadbury Bunny Tryouts, which featured shelter animals. The national candy company offered $5,000 to the shelter animal who could win over the public with his video entry. For his tryout, Crash performed tricks he learned from staff and volunteers — giving high-fives, walking through hoops, exercising on a fitness wheel — while sporting a fuzzy bunny hat.
Thanks to all the cat lovers in America who voted for him, Crash won the competition and was featured in the Cadbury TV commercials at Easter time.
His story appeared in People magazine and the Drew Barrymore Show, as well as the Washington Post and National Public Radio.
An ordinary tabby cat from Boise, Idaho became a national sensation! How did that happen?
We all need to know that we can overcome adversity. Crash’s story is one of hope and redemption. He reminds us that, even when things are bad, they can get better with perseverance and the help of others.
**For the Washington Post Cadbury Bunny video for 2023 starring Crash: CLICK HERE.
Even surprisingly wonderful things can happen when people care enough to do something for someone else, even if it’s only a stray cat.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers for a local animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.