On Saturday, September 30, I was deployed to Houston as an extension of my role as Marketing Outreach Lead with Best Friends Animal Society. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, they have been running the Pet Reunion Pavilion, an emergency response shelter that has evolved from a pop-up triage shelter in Montgomery County, TX to a legitimate temporary shelter and Best Friends has recently announced that they’ve secured space for a permanent shelter in Houston. Observing logistics alone, from my vantage point, is just remarkable. Coordination like that only happens with good collaboration, and Best Friends has always modeled exemplary collaboration as a guiding principle.
I didn’t really know what to expect prior to my arrival at the Pet Reunion Pavilion other than I’d be putting in long hours, doing hard work and was assigned to working with cats. I was pretty excited to dive in.
I went into the first few days feeling a little out of place since I literally knew no one except the volunteer coordinator, Pat Guerrero, whom I had met a few years prior on a project. Nothing like being the new kid and not knowing your role to make you feel like an awkward teenager. I’m pretty sure I was an awkward teenager those first few days.
I settled into a groove, though, and was assigned as the Library Lead on Day 3. The Library is the section of the Pet Reunion Pavilion where the little dogs are housed so it can be quieter for them. Those big dogs can be quite unnerving to the little ones with their barking. If you picture 30 little dogs in a section of a shelter, though, it’s anything but quiet. To be perfectly honest, I’m partial to big dogs, but I did fall in love with the little guys pretty quickly. In related news: looks like this sweet creature is moving to St. Louis soon.
I don’t have much experience in shelter operations, but my guess is that the Pet Reunion Pavilion runs similar to other expertly run shelters. Hard work; long hours; overstimulation of the senses with constant barking, a lovely combination of dog pee & bleach and harsh lights; rinse; repeat. There’s really not much new to say about the shelter, itself.
What there is to talk about is the culture of the amazing staff and volunteers. I know I tend to use the word amazing in rather mundane situations, but working with this cohort was nothing short of amazing. I met so many people from various departments who stepped into roles outside their comfort zones and they ROCKED it! I mean, my little gig with Best Friends is in the marketing department and I was in charge of running an area of the shelter. Everyone’s role was valuable and valued.
Everyone was polite and kind and truly looked out for each other. Not once did I observe anyone’s ego get in the way, and that can happen rather quickly in animal welfare. It’s difficult to describe, but suffice it to say, the culture is truly like a family.
I also saw some fantastic work done by the genius Marketing & PR team, many of whom I’ve met via email thread or phone conference. Erin Miner led a brilliant project (photo below) in which every single animal’s mug shot was displayed and it turned into an art installation of sorts. What I love about this project is the individualized aspect of it. Best Friends really does walk the walk when it comes to their Save Them All mission.
My colleague/counterpart in Jacksonville, FL, Jessie Miller and Holly Tassi were responsible for securing five donated billboards to promote fostering. Not only are the staff brilliant, but they’re passionate and have great personalities, too. What an honor to work alongside such a highly competent and passionate staff!
If you’re wondering when one hits a brick wall, it was Day 6 for me. I started the morning in tears over things that wouldn’t normally bother me. (I don’t even remember what those things were.) I was physically, mentally and emotionally tapped.
I decided to extend my trip because there was a nagging feeling that my work wasn’t finished, but I needed a hot minute to myself. The administrators gave me the afternoon and I found the nearest spa and booked a massage and facial. It took the entire two hours to get my brain back to (somewhat) baseline. The brilliant Barb Williamson mentioned at dinner the next night that intense relief work becomes insidious very quickly and it’s important for people to look out for signs of burnout. Kudos to the staff for recognizing this and to Best Friends for prioritizing workers’ mental health. Hopefully all organizations are mindful of burnout.
After more than a week to process my experience I’ve returned to a much better, calmer baseline than before. Immersing myself in the blood, sweat and tears of a cause I’m truly passionate about has left me in the same place that 10 days of straight meditation would have. (And it was arguably easier.) I didn’t even have the luxury of focusing on the daily pressures and stressors that were compounding and weighing on me from all angles. I don’t care who you are, you’ve got things in your life that weigh on you and turning your focus to a cause you believe in and away from yourself works wonders for the soul.
My heart is full I am deeply grateful for Best Friends for this experience, specifically my manager, Kayla Zakel, who opened the door for this opportunity. I’m proud to say I placed a teeny tiny piece into the puzzle that is the Best Friends Pet Reunion Pavilion; I can say that I was there and I made a small difference.