Through my Irvine eyes: A volunteer event to remember

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When I first walked into the Irvine Animal Care Center in Irvine, CA, I was blown away by the beauty of the shelter. First of all, it was huge. It’s hard to get a sense of scope while just talking on the phone, but the rolling hills and wonderful dog runs, farm area, rabbit yard, and indoor/outdoor cat kennels made me feel so happy for the animals and a bit nervous about how I was going to make this shelter any more appealing than it already was. I was, at that point, in the planning stages for a huge volunteer event with MARS Petcare. My job was to not only make a palpable, visible difference to the shelter overall, but to also keep 200 volunteers busy for 2 ½ hours. With a month of planning, 34 separate events were created to make the shelter a better place for the adoptable pets and shelter staff.

I left early on the Monday before the event, driving from Tucson, AZ, to Irvine with a cargo van loaded with an arsenal of tools and a positive attitude. I got to the shelter at 2 p.m. and got right to work. I had to have everything set up and ready for the volunteers to start working on that Thursday, but first, I had some repairs and renovations that I had to do. In the front of the shelter, a soda machine and a wooden bench sat sullenly under pale red veranda bleached by the California sun. The bench was littered with cobwebs, suggesting that the only patrons of this sad bench are of the eight-legged variety. The soda machine, although in high demand, was a bit of an eyesore as a focal point in the front of the shelter. I removed the wooden fencing enclosing and supporting the veranda to make it more open and inviting, and supported it with smaller cross beams that kept it strong without taking up crucial space in the front of the shelter. Being the macho head case that I am, I attempted to move the soda machine on my own and quickly discovered that I couldn’t defeat the machine on my own. That would have to wait until the next day.

In the back of the shelter, there is a meet-and-greet barn where potential adopters are encouraged to spend quiet time with pets to get a better sense of who they are. It was in desperate need of repair. The entire back facing of the barn had severe water damage and was falling apart and the inside front door was a fright. The sun had long since faded into the ocean as I started to tear off the paneling, a small floodlight and a headlamp my only guides. As I progressed deeper into the project, I realized that the water damage was far more extensive than I had originally thought; the studs were also in poor shape. I moved on to the front door; somehow the inside of the door was water damaged while the outside remained perfectly fine. Twenty minutes later, the door was done and it was time to clean up and get some sleep for the next day.

The Irvine Animal Care Center is closed to the public on Tuesdays, which is nice. I knew that I could get all of the loud, messy projects out of the way without interrupting the flow of the public into the shelter; also, I got to hang out with the animals while I worked. After an early morning trip to the store for supplies, I was ready to get to work. I finished the back facing of the meet-and-greet and the door, one project ready for paint. At this point the soda machine guys showed up, as did the fountain delivery guys. The fountain was to go in the spot where the soda machine lived, so we grabbed a dolly, emptied out the machine, hiked our pants, tied our shoes, and moved the machine with nothing more than every bit of strength and sheer determination we had in us. I moved on to help the guys move the fountain, which was just a little easier than moving the soda machine. After moving, placing and leveling the fountain, I had to move on to complete more projects. This was my only day without interruption, so I had to make the best of it.

A hungry pig enjoys some tasty grass at the Irvine Animal Care Center.

The goats, chickens and pigs were let out of the farm area so that I could power wash the barns and housing inside the farm. Three porcine friends decided to stick with me, opting to take advantage of the cool mist and subsequent mud that my activities resulted in. When I finished in the farm area I left to power wash all the benches on the property, leaving three very happy, cool pigs in virtual hog heaven. The benches, although there were more of them, were a far easier task and the goats were having fun following me around bleating at me as I washed. I left the yard when I was all done and moved to the back where I started to cut the wood that would eventually become beautiful planter boxes. Boxes done, I moved on to cutting wood for the cat scratchers and drilling holes. After a full day, and the sun still shining, I went back to the store to get some more supplies with a nice crust of sawdust and grime covering my body. Back at the shelter, I began to organize the supplies and set up stations as best I could before the deliveries arrived the next day.

After a restless night of sleep, I showed up at the shelter the next morning and began to further organize the supplies. As I finished with what I had, all the deliveries showed up at the same time. As soon as the delivery was unloaded, the plants arrived; after the plants arrived, the team leads from MARS showed up for their initial walkthrough and debriefing. I looked upon the MARS associates, with their fresh faces and clean clothes, with a pang of hunger, realizing that I’d eaten one full meal since pulling into Irvine, so I wrote on my arm, in marker, EAT, and moved on with the walkthrough.

We started at the front gate. To the right of the gate sat the veranda. A fountain, a giant concrete bench in the shape of a bone and branded with the MARS logo, and a rosewood planter were going to be placed in there. Also, the entire structure was to be painted red with white trim. Farther right was the farm area and all of the structures had to be painted and cleaned, as well as three yards of dirt brought in to level out the yard that the farm animals had dug out and made serious ruts in. The path that runs along the side of the building is where we were to put the sensory path, the sensory path consisted of rectangular planters that contain a variety of pet safe herbs that not only provide intoxicating smells but is visually stimulating. Along that same path, MARS volunteers were going to put different colored paw prints to make a path to the cats and dogs stay. Halfway up the path is where the rabbit yard is and the volunteers were going to wash the cages, the blocks, and replace all the bedding in the pens. The back of the shelter had a couple of projects, painting some green barns, organizing the donation space, building shelves, covering dog kennels with tarps, building the planter boxes, and beautifying the dog yard that had a pergola where plants that will creep up the sides when placed. The volunteers were also going to make cat scratchers, paint the inside cat room, paint all of the wooden benches, washing windows, assembling waste stations, mulching, and overall clean-up.

After about an hour and a half of discussing the event that was to take place in a mere 26 hours, I had to gracefully bow out and seriously get to work. I was right on schedule and had at this point run into no problems and wanted to keep it that way. Then I remembered the benches that I had ordered two weeks ago that still hadn’t arrived. I got on the phone and was assured that the benches would be at the shelter before the event the next day. Going back to the large shipment and taking stock of what was delivered, I noticed that numerous items were missing, so back to the store I went. I finished shopping and got back to the shelter around 5 p.m. I had a list of all the projects that needed to be done, so I started at the first one and gathered all the materials and supplies that I needed to get the job done. I did this for every project that the volunteers would be doing. By 11:30 p.m. I had finished all the project set-up and left the shelter feeling good. The next day was the big day and I had an early morning to look forward to.

The obnoxious hotel telephone quickly woke me up at 6 a.m. and I dressed and headed out the door for a half-hour drive to Laguna to meet with the MARS staff to quickly go over the events of the afternoon. As I walked into the hotel, I was informed that the equipment that was available to me to move the 2,000-lb. concrete benches would not be able to do the job. So I spent the first half of the briefing on the phone trying to track down a forklift that I could use to move the benches. After numerous phone calls and faxes from the hotel, I got a forklift that was going to be delivered in two hours. I went back to the briefing and finished up with MARS, went over last-minute details and went back to the shelter. The forklift arrived early and, although bigger than I’d expected, did the job wonderfully. With the benches in place, we were now fully ready to go — except for the other benches I had ordered! I got on the phone and after a lot of back and forth and an apology, I was resigned to the fact that our benches would not be there on time.

MARS associates plant herbs in a volunteer-made rosewood planter box.

The first bus arrived with volunteers at 4 p.m., and that was the last time I looked at the clock until the event was over. Ron Edwards, the shelter director at Irvine, made a wonderful speech before the event started, and then it began. I have to say that the MARS Petcare team is by far the most efficient group of volunteers that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Once the teams were set and the tasks explained, they went to work like a machine. I watched the shelter magically transform before my eyes. I was concerned that some of the tasks would be too demanding to finish within the time constraints, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s true that there is strength in numbers, and I bore full witness to this phenomenon.

When the event was done and the last of the volunteers had left, I stood in amazement, looking at the shelter that I had grown so accustomed to in the previous three days. It had been completely transformed. For the first time in days, I had nothing to do for a couple of minutes. I sat down in the grass and rested my head on my knees and felt a calm wash over me. I noticed that the dogs were not barking; all of them had been walked, played with, and were resting in their kennels; the cats, happy with their new scratchers, curled up and slept. My meditation was interrupted when I heard my name. I looked to see the shelter staff standing in front of me, beaming, and one crying. They helped me up and thanked me over and over. I kept telling them that they didn’t have to thank me, that all the thanks I need is knowing that the work we did will help the staff, help the pets that are waiting for their forever homes, and seeing the three pigs, ravenous, come running for the food that they had been deprived of while their abode was being touched up.

I lay in bed that night, weary from a long week and not looking forward to packing up and driving for eight hours, but slept better than I had in weeks, comforted by the fact that I had a part in making a tangible difference in the lives of so many. Oh, and in case you were wondering, I never did eat dinner Wednesday night.

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