Volunteering for ICAN has helped me grow in many ways and has given me insights on issues I hadn't even thought about, but for me, one of the most important things it has done is to allow me to grow and learn from unexpected sources: ICAN's handlers, dogs, and clients.
For years I have said that I can't go into any of the prisons, where inmate handlers train ICAN's dogs, without learning something from the handlers – it might be a life skill, attitude, or a training strategy, but I have learned a lot from our incredible group of handlers. In hearing their stories or their discussions of how being involved with ICAN has changed them I have learned to remain open to the possibility of positive outcomes in spite of overwhelmingly challenging circumstances. Watching the handlers work with the dogs is an incredible experience, and just as dogs are said to give their people unconditional love, I observe the handlers giving all the dogs in the program their love and patience unconditionally, every day, and hope that I can follow their example.
Many people do not love unconditionally and are quick to judge others, but dogs just accept and love each person for who they are without judgment. I see them in challenging situations with other dogs or tasks they are trying to learn and they keep going, live in the moment, and don't look back – no judgment, no memory of the struggle, no grudges. I see them look at their handlers (who society has chosen to lock away because of their past deeds) or their clients (who frequently get ignored or avoided because they don't look or act like everyone else) with such adoration and love – regardless of what they have done, or how they move, speak, or interact. Somehow they know that we are all doing our best in spite of the hand life has dealt us, and rather than judging or condemning, they gracefully help us cope and live richer lives. If I find myself being tempted to judge or think negatively of others I try to remember the example the dogs have set before me and view others through the dogs' eyes.
The lives and struggles I see ICAN's clients experience during team training could be overwhelming were it not for the perseverance and determination I see in them that inspires and teaches me. I think about how easy it is for me to put a collar on a dog, yet I sit and watch as some clients and handlers work together during team training for hours to learn to do what I do in about five seconds. I observe the love and concern and sacrifice of parents for their children and wonder if I could be as patient, strong, and resourceful as these parents have to be. And, I see joy and humor and grace and love in the clients – expressed so freely and genuinely toward the handlers and their new partners and others – and I wonder how I would behave if I had been dealt the challenging hand that most of the clients have received.
Volunteering for ICAN could be compared to a long-term mission trip – with a mission of interacting with clients and handlers to improve lives with some incredible dogs as the common denominator. I've heard it said the people who go on mission trips get more out of the experience than the people that they are there to serve, and I now understand the meaning of that idea. I believe that I benefit and grow more from the volunteer experience through my interaction with the handlers, clients, and dogs than I contribute to the organization, and for that I feel incredibly humbled and blessed. – by Becky Andrade
Photo: Becky and her best friend Rudi
Becky is approaching her sixth year as a volunteer with ICAN. She is the coordinator of ICAN's Furlough Foundation classes and has furloughed many ICAN dogs in training. If you would like to learn more about being a furlough volunteer for ICAN, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.