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Jessica Brown Lewis '03 and the importance of volunteering

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Posted on Monday, August 30, 2021

Giving of time is what makes the world go around. Not many people know this better than Jessica Brown Lewis '03, a Broadcast Communications graduate, employee at the American Red Cross, and volunteer for the Grove City Area Pet Rescue. She shares why others should invest their time in areas they love.

How/why/when did you begin your volunteer work? 
I've always been a pet lover. When I was finally in a situation where I had the room, money, and time to help animals, I started taking in homeless cats - one at a time. I vetted them, socialized them, and found them homes. Then I came across a group in my community (Grove City Area Pet Rescue) who was already established and doing the same thing, so I joined them & became a foster volunteer. Since 2014, I've had over 280 foster kittens through my house! It's great to adopt a pet because you are saving an animal, but if you foster, you can help save hundreds in your lifetime.

What made you want to train your own cat to be a therapy cat? 
I adopted Draven before I started fostering for a rescue and at that time, I had never met a cat like him. He was just super laid back & friendly. Really what makes him a great Therapy Cat is that he is lazy! His favorite thing to do is visit hospital patients and lounge on their beds. I was hospitalized for over 3 weeks when I was in my 20s and I missed my pets terribly. If someone would have come into my room with a Therapy Pet, I probably would not have let them leave. I hope we're giving folks a fraction of that kind of happiness & relief when we visit. We'll keep doing it as long as Draven keeps enjoying it.

What do pets provide people's spirits?
There's actually scientific evidence that proves interacting with animals promotes the release of serotonin, prolactin, & oxytocin - all hormones that improve a person's mood. A cat's purr causes vibrations in the 20 to 140 Hz range which can decrease blood pressure, help heal tissue, muscle, tendon, & bone injuries, as well as reduce swelling & symptoms of dyspnea. A purring cat is a great form of therapy for someone recovering in the hospital! Aside from all that medical stuff, I think when a person sees Draven coming into their room, they're just happy it's not someone with medicine, a needle, paperwork, or bad news! I've experienced first-hand how having an animal enter the room can totally change a person's demeanor. They light up. It's magic.

Why should other people invest their time in something they love? What do they gain from it?
I got into Pet Therapy at first because I thought it would be some light-hearted fun and a good way to bond with my cat. But after doing it for only a short time, it became very clear that it means a lot to some people (and Draven). You would be amazed by some of the things patients have told us (well, told Draven). He helps them open up, share their feelings & fears, and I guarantee they have told us things they didn't even say to their own families or the staff. In my opinion, that is an honor. 

We've also been invited to lots of parties and events that I wouldn't have been invited to if it weren't for Draven. It's a privilege to be a guest at these functions. All this time I thought I was just doing something fun for myself, but it turns out that it was really something meaningful to others. It was a surprise I wasn't expecting.

What do you think the world would look like without volunteerism?
I work for the American Red Cross, so I am acutely aware of how important volunteers are! We wouldn't be able to function without our incredible volunteers! There are many organizations out there - of all sizes - that depend on folks who are able to volunteer their time, knowledge, skills, etc. If people only did jobs they were paid for, we'd lose out so many wonderful programs and organizations. Our jobs may feed our bank accounts, but our volunteer work feeds our souls.

Especially now, why should people pour their hearts into things that they love?
The last 18 months have been difficult for everyone for different reasons. It's important now more than ever to find something you enjoy (if only to keep your sanity!). Start small by thinking about a very basic or general thing you like or like to do. Enjoy baking? How could that help? Could you run a bake sale & donate the proceeds to a non-profit? Could you offer to teach a class about making cookies? Could you bake itty bitty cakes for hamsters & put videos of them eating the tiny cakes on YouTube? Yes, this is real thing. And it's awesome. Take one little thing you enjoy & see how it could branch out & grow & get you involved in volunteering. You just might be surprised by where you end up.

Honestly, if someone told me seven years ago that I'd be caring for neonatal kittens, doing tube-feeding, sub-q fluids, injections, running an incubator... I would have said they were crazy. Medical stuff was never my forte. But all this came about because we NEEDED someone to learn how to do these things and provide this specialized kind of care. My love for pets lead me down a path where I learned so much about the physiological, behavioral, and developmental needs of cats that I even amazed myself. Just imagine what volunteering could do for you!

To learn more about volunteering your time helping students thrive at Westminster College, visit here