Balancing #SAgrad Life... With Kittens

Henney, one of the first dogs I walked when volunteering with Best Friends.

When I moved to Salt Lake City to begin my master’s degree in Student Affairs at the University of Utah, I knew I wanted to get involved in the community off-campus as well. I had done a lot of leadership work on and off-campus during my undergraduate degree and the years after, and couldn’t imagine life without involvement. But with a full-time course load and graduate assistantship, I decided that this was a good time to step back from leadership in my volunteering and learn something new at the same time. That led me to Best Friends Animal Society, where I have been volunteering since March.

Best Friends is a national organization with a strong foundation in Utah, with the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in the red rock canyons of Kanab, Utah; a statewide coalition of shelters and animal welfare organizations in its No-Kill Utah (NKUT) initiative; and an adoption center in the hip Sugarhouse district of Salt Lake City. As I’ve learned since March, this just scratches the surface of all that Best Friends does, but every aspect of their work makes a huge dent in saving the lives of shelter animals.

In March, I started volunteering by cleaning kennels in the adoption center and walking dogs on the weekend. For a graduate student, the perks from this kind of volunteering opportunity are many: two hours away from a computer screen, getting some exercise and fresh air, and, of course, spending time with a dog that couldn’t be more excited to see me. Walking these shelter dogs reminded me of the therapy dogs that were brought to campus at both my undergraduate institution and the University of Utah around finals week—taking a moment to pause your busy day and pet a dog can relieve stress. And by walking the dogs at Best Friends, I get to not only relieve my stress from school, but the dog’s stress as well by giving them some much-deserved one-on-one time.

This summer I ramped up my volunteering when shifts opened at their Salt Lake City Kitten Nursery. Long story short, for a state to become no-kill, they have to save the lives of most of the cats and dogs that would usually die in the shelter system. For cats, the most common deaths are infant kittens that are susceptible to disease and need around-the-clock care. Because of the risks for illness, volunteering with infant kittens takes 10 hours of training before volunteering solo. In this training, I learned about how kittens mature and how to do everything from keeping the kittens warm to bottle-feeding them. As the volunteer coordinator shared in our first training, this opportunity is one of the best because our actions are literally saving the lives of these baby kittens every time we care for them.

Kittens at the Best Friends Kitten NurseryFeeding helpless kittens is quite the way to gain perspective on priorities. Like many student leaders and student affairs professionals, I used to get anxious when my phone was out of sight or I wasn’t multitasking on several projects. But taking two hours of my week to keep my phone in my pocket and put all of my attention into helping these kittens keep their food down and gain weight changed the pace with which I approached my work. There’s a certain mindfulness necessary to following all of the steps to keep the kittens safe and healthy, and a certain simplicity to focusing on the basic needs of food and warm shelter. Plus, holding a week-old kitten in your palm is pretty darn adorable.

The Kitten Nursery is emptying out as winter sets in and fewer kittens are born, but I still make it in when I can to help with the remaining few. What I know looking back is this—my graduate school experience wouldn’t be the same without Best Friends, and my time spent with the dogs, cats, and kittens at the adoption center and nursery has been some of my favorite in Salt Lake City.

This post originally appeared as part of the #SAvolunteers series on The Student Affairs Collective blog.