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Every year around the holidays, KMUW News introduces us to some of the volunteers making a difference in the community.

For Humane Society Volunteers, Bringing Companionship To Seniors Isn't A Job, 'It's A Joy'

This week, KMUW News is telling the stories of volunteers who donate their time and talent to Sedgwick County organizations and nonprofits. Many people do their volunteer assignments year round--not just at the holidays.

Sue “K”--who prefers that her hard-to-pronounce last name not be used--is one of 1500 volunteers at the Kansas Humane Society in Wichita. The passionate dog lover manages a program that takes some lucky animals out of the shelter and into the waiting arms of residents in health care facilities. The program helps to create therapeutic and happy times for people, including those for whom pet ownership may no longer be an option. 

It’s easy to recognize the lady who goes by the name Sue “K” standing in the foyer of Reeds Cove Health and Rehabilitation Center in east Wichita. The petite, silver-haired woman wears a royal blue t-shirt with an image of a paw print in the center and the word "VOLUNTEER" emblazoned underneath.

With her is volunteer Scott Wright, who pats a happy white dog on a leash beside him while Sue greets me with another white dog in her arms.

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Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
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KMUW
Roxy the Labrador and residents at Reeds Cove.

"Our canine good friends today are sweet little Molly, and she is a 9-year-old Chihuahua," Sue says, "and this is her new best friend. This is Roxy, and she is four years old and she is a Labrador mix."

Roxy is a medium-sized dog with a red scarf tied around her neck; Molly, who sports a pink dog sweater, is a lot smaller. Sue is responsible for selecting the two for the visit. She started taking a keen interest in the animal rescue organization nearly 20 years ago after retiring from a career in health care.

"When I retired in 1997, I wanted to go to the Humane Society because it’s been well established in health care what animals do for people," Sue says. "And so I got there and I learned about this Project Companionship. It was established probably about 25 years ago. A gentleman was getting his masters and this was his program and he developed it."

The two dogs enter a circle of waiting residents--many of them in wheel chairs--and staff. Many of the seniors eagerly pet the dogs. There’s no barking; the dogs relish the attention.

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Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
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KMUW
Roxy the Labrador mix greets senior residents during a trip to Reeds Cove.

Project Companionship keeps Sue on the go, taking dogs to visit residents in care homes, the Veterans Affairs hospital, plus others in Wichita, Goddard, Derby and Augusta.

"We’ve got a waiting list," Sue says. "I just don’t have enough volunteers who are committed to the program to add more, but it brings so much joy to obviously the animals, certainly the residents of the care facilities we go to, and the staff adores it."

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Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
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KMUW
Scott Wright, a volunteer with Kansas Humane Society's Project Companionship, with Roxy.

Volunteer Scott Wright was heavily recruited by Sue. He was taking photos of cats for the Humane Society’s website when he met his future mentor.

"She’s just great with people," Scott says. "A good encourager and fun to be with. She brought a dog back and I adopted a dog from Project Companionship, but then I got involved with it. I just love coming and watching the residents respond to the dogs, especially in some of the memory units, watching them open up and blossom and start to tell about pets that they’ve had. It's just a lot of fun and I enjoy being around the older people and the animals."

As Project Companionship coordinator, Sue takes her role very seriously, making sure potential volunteers are a right fit. People interested in volunteering fill out an online application, go through a dog handling course, interview with the organization’s volunteer coordinator then train with Sue.

"As I mentor with the volunteers, I’m very honest with them, saying it’s not for everybody. I take them [to] a number of different care facilities and let them see what it’s like. It’s a process," she says. "Each visit is usually about a three-hour situation for selection of the dogs, making sure that they get along together, then going on the visits. Some volunteers say, 'It’s not for me.' They don’t have the good interaction skills with the population that we deal with."

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Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW
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KMUW
Sue "K" introduces Molly the Chihuahua to a senior resident at Reeds Cove.

Despite the hard work, Sue says it’s not a job--it’s a joy.

"It brings smiles to all the residents' and the dogs' faces," she says. "So we see the dogs smile. It’s good to get the sheltered dogs out for a field trip, so to say; to get them socialized, that’s fabulous. They get joy, and then we give a report back and a lot of times that helps in the adoption process."

One of the highlights for this dedicated volunteer is when people fall in love with the dogs.

"This happens a lot on our visits. We partner up with a lot of the residents' families, the caregivers there that want to come and adopt a dog, and so that’s kind of neat," Sue says. "We’ve seen a lot of positive things besides just what happens here--and then what happens beyond."

And how did Roxy and Molly fare in the Project Companionship program? Well, Molly was adopted a couple of years ago by a staff member at the Humane Society who brings her to work daily, and Roxy was also adopted shortly after visiting Reeds Cove.

Now Sue is working with new companion dogs to spend time in the lap of a new friend and to offer wet kisses for a health care resident who has plenty of love to give back.

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Carla Eckels is assistant news director and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.