96: Bed, Bath and Way Beyond

96: Bed, Bath and Way Beyond

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Bed, Bath and Way Beyond

It is a happy talent to know how to play.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Volunteering wasn’t my cup of tea. The thought of giving up my precious time in exchange for nothing didn’t interest me. But then, at the ripe young age of fifty, I unexpectedly found myself unable to work as the result of a medical condition. Suddenly, I had way too much time on my hands.

The first year or so of my forced retirement was spent mostly sitting for hours alone feeling sorry for myself. The second year I spent my time cleaning out more closets, junk rooms and cubbyholes than I’d ever realized one home could have. There were times I was so bored with life that I actually contemplated knocking on my neighbors’ doors to beg them to let me clean their forgotten spaces. The “postal lady” dreaded seeing me sitting on the porch when delivering the mail. I so longed for conversation I’d talk with her about anything that popped into my mind. The librarians at my local library called me by name because I’d spent so many hours bothering them.

By the time the third year rolled around I was still moping a bit, but with the tidiest garden on the street, the most organized pantry shelves, and the cleanest nooks and crannies on the block, I realized the thing I’d valued most in my life I’d been squandering.

One Sunday afternoon I saw an advertisement in the newspaper asking for community volunteers at the local Humane Society shelter. I’d always loved animals, and having lost my own best friend and beloved Pit Bull a few months prior to my sudden illness, the idea of working with dogs that needed homes seemed a perfect fit. There was no time to waste. After all, if I procrastinated they’d surely find someone else to fill the open slots. I dashed off an e-mail to the shelter letting them know of my interest and before the day was up had a return e-mail telling me where and when to “report for duty.”

After sitting through a two-hour orientation, my reluctance to volunteer was back in full force. Each volunteer was asked to complete a three-hour stint in “Bed, Bath and Beyond,” a fancy title for scrubbing food bowls and litter pans and washing trash bins stuffed with dirty, smelly laundry. Who knew animals could dirty so many blankets in one day? But with all the determination I could muster I told myself to relax and enjoy the task at hand. After all, this was only the beginning of a long list of volunteer opportunities available at the shelter, a way of weeding out those not truly interested in giving their time. Once this task was complete I’d be promoted to bigger and better things, right?

With all the diligence and enthusiasm I’d become famous for at the shelter, I went right to work. There was never a dull moment and always a new animal that needed love and the reassurance that it would soon find its new home. There was the occasional shy, grown cat that just needed company while it waited for its new owner to arrive. There were dogs of all sizes and breeds—some excited, some scared, some wanting to play, others simply needing a bit of space while they adjusted to the new surroundings.

One blustery January morning I pulled open the shelter doors, punched the volunteer time clock and went to work. As I’d come to learn, no day is considered normal at the Humane Society, and this one was no different. I began by washing dishes and shoving a load of laundry into the washer—a rather mindless task I’d actually come to enjoy, especially after seeing firsthand what a benefit it was to the paid staff for a volunteer to do the “grunt work” so they could spend more time teaching the animals basic commands in preparation for their new owners.

With the laundry packed away and the dishes drying, I made my way through the shelter in search of a “newbie,” a dog or cat just introduced to the shelter that needed a bit of extra tender love and care. I found an unexpected surprise. With her lipstick mouth, spotted floppy ears, and paws that seemed perfect for a dog four times her size, she was packed in a twelve-week-old package of energy and excitement, with hazel eyes that screamed, “You need me, you just haven’t realized it yet!”

Just looking at her brought a long-forgotten smile to my face. Around and around the pen she ran, chasing her tail until she fell over from dizziness. She would grab her tail between her teeth and growl at it like it was an enemy she’d finally conquered. I laughed, and the sound of my own laughter startled me. It had been years since I’d laughed out loud.

I stood watching the puppy for what seemed like hours before I finally reached in and pulled her to my chest. She sniffed, wiggled her way up my shoulders to my face, and began licking me with her warm, wet tongue. After a while she calmed, laid her head on my chest and stared into my eyes. Then she closed her eyes tight and sighed as if to say, “I’m at peace now, you’re here.” She knew it before I did. We needed each other.

A fresh zeal for a changed life can often be found in the strangest places. Mine was found in the eyes of a pup I named Hazel, and I would have missed the opportunity altogether had I not been willing to give of the most precious thing in life—my time.

~Lisa Fowler

More stories from our partners