I interviewed for my last job in 1993 when there were no cell phones; the internet was in its infancy. Blackberry was familiar as a fruit. Next year, a careless driver ran over me as I walked my dogs, leading to a long hospital stay. I lacked health insurance but that’s another story. Permanent injuries removed me from the workplace, which I entered in high school. Sometimes I held two jobs because of punishing student loans, rent, and the cost of living in Manhattan.
At 39, I couldn’t sit home but permanent injuries prevented a full-time job. I had to do something but what? I had led an active social life with dinners, movies, Broadway shows, art gallery openings, shopping and charity events. I competed in three New York City marathons. With wobbly legs I crossed near the end but I finished. I moved away from New York City in 1989. I bicycled in the Rockies and jogged along the Charles River. I backpacked in Vermont. New challenges excited me but the one on 1/6/94 was different.
Living each day with a damaged brain and body tested me. By evening I could barely remember what happened after breakfast or if I ate at all. Walking was slow and unsteady eventually requiring a motorized scooter. A long recovery aside, I re-invented myself as a volunteer. Each position fulfilled and rewarded me in unique, special ways.
I answered calls in the Governor’s office of constituent services once a week. Citizens were usually disappointed they spoke with me rather than Janet Napolitano. During my first week, a caller asked for Janet. Not recalling anyone named Janet, I asked, “Who’s Janet?” She shot back, “The governor you idiot.” The caller wanted legal advice from the governor who had served as attorney general from 1998-2002. I said the governor didn’t offer legal advice. During a luncheon with the volunteers and the governor later that year, I told the story. The governor laughed. I left the state house when the governor resigned to work in the Obama administration. I was proud of my service to Arizona. I parted with a long list of stories.
For years, I provided snacks to beat up stray dogs and cats at several shelters. One dog, a beagle/hound mix, weaseled his way through my protective wall and snagged my attention. I don’t remember why the old boy ended up with the shelter but confinement made him so unhappy. He yipped and yowled for hours on end that he became hoarse. I took the floppy eared dog outside for walks and he pranced around as if he won best in show. Yet no one expressed interest in the happy yapper. I always left the talkative dog with a comfy blanket, canned food and a crunchy treat. I felt sorry for him because his age and loud mouth worked against him. No longer cute and adorable like a two-month old puppy, but he was tender and sweet.
I returned three days later. I rarely asked about favorite dogs or cats. My emotions did better if I didn’t know their fate.
“Susanne, do you remember the big mouthed mix in adoptions?” I asked.
“The little one who howled all day long,” Susanne said. “I remember him.”
“Did he get adopted?”
“He was here longer than most dogs because he was so cute. Barking did him in. He went down yesterday.”
My heart suddenly felt heavy.
At Christmas time, PetSmart, the national chain, partnered with local shelters and rescue groups for pet photos with Santa. PetSmart provided the camera and film then split the proceeds with the rescue groups. Over the years, I dealt with thoughtless owners, comforted abused animals, and spent time around employees whose hearts were sometimes hardened to animal suffering. I grabbed the chance to surround myself with people whose pets were cherished parts of the family.
Sitting came easily to me so I wore the Santa suit. Some big dogs were terrified sitting with Santa. I struggled to hold them next to me.
After her dog’s picture was done, one woman said, “I should’ve brought my horse. Maybe I’ll come back.”
“This Santa can’t do horses,” I said, gesturing towards my chair. “I’m sorry. Maybe someone else can.”
The most memorable rescue involved my own dog, Maxine. I paid $2.00 to a woman hawking vials of crack cocaine for a scabby mutt she called Maxine. That was September 19, 1988 when I worked as a social worker in a South Bronx neighborhood crushed by poverty, illicit drugs and more gang members than police could arrest. Already living on a shoestring budget and swamped by student loans, I planned to take Maxine to the city shelter. I lived in a one-room apartment and struggled to pay rent and utilities. How could I afford a dog? By the time I got home, the skinny dog with the sparse brown and gold coat melted my heart. I kept her.
Maxine and I shared a special bond. On January 6, 1994 we took our usual stroll after work when a car struck me and threw me into a ditch. I was unconscious. Unharmed, Maxine was shaken up. Neighbors said she refused to leave my side, licking blood oozing from my head. She whimpered and whined as the ambulance sped off. Fortunately, friends cared for her in my two-month absence.
During my hospitalization, friends persuaded doctors to allow Maxine to visit. Although I have no memory of her bedside calls, friends said I knew her name when I didn’t know my own.
When I came home two months later, I was on the verge of a deep depression. How could I, an active, vibrant 39-year-old woman, live as a disabled person? I had always earned my own keep. Maxine’s warm nose nudging me to get out of bed made the difference. I shifted my angry attitude and realized my life had a purpose.
In the years that followed, Maxine took my disability in stride. She rode on my motorized scooter like the happiest dog in the world. As she aged, my scooter became as vital for her outdoor activity as it was for mine. We went everywhere together. Eventually, Maxine became sick. First, it was thyroid disease. And then diabetes. Twice daily shots of insulin prolonged her life but kidney failure soon followed. Maxine lost her struggle in February 2001. I cried for days. How could I live without my beloved Maxine? Other unwanted dogs have needed me since. I’ve loved each and every one but Maxine will always hold a tender place in my heart. That was the best $2.00 I ever spent.
In my thirty years as a shelter volunteer, I compiled enough stories to fill a book.
Homeless children who I met as a volunteer with Gabriel’s Angels learned the power of healing from my adopted dog Luke. Teaching compassion and kindness extended beyond animals. After seven years of service, I have a long list of touching stories. One in particular stands out. On December 26, 2004 tragedy rocked the other side of the world. A giant tsunami nearly swallowed up Asian countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Thousands of people perished while the savage storm left millions homeless. Businesses and infrastructure were demolished. Moved by the frightful situation I shared my thoughts with the children. Despite being homeless, they opened their hearts to lives shattered by the tsunami. With a little help from me, they wrote letters to the ambassadors of the impacted countries. I added cover letters explaining who we were and mailed them to the United Nations. Several weeks later, the ambassador’s office from Sri Lanka called to say thank you for the kind and thoughtful notes. The woman said as the country recovered from the massive devastation she’d read our letters in schools. I felt so proud. I returned the next week with the good news.
Founded by naturalist John Muir, the Sierra Club has chapters across the U.S. that work for a clean, healthy environment. I volunteered for the chapter in Phoenix by filing, light typing, shredding, and other clerical duties. I regret that my disability keeps me away from outings such as hikes, kayaking or road clean-ups. Nonetheless, I was pleased to contribute to our local environment. My disability doesn’t prevent me from writing or calling legislators encouraging them to veto or to sign environmental legislation. I remain a registered voter with a voice.
At Sky Harbor airport, volunteers like me are scheduled to work at a post behind security. ID cards allow us entry for employees, which is usually shorter than the public line. TSA agents protect us from harm. The job can be tedious and stressful but constant vigilance is a must. Because my scooter cannot pass through the x-ray machine, a female agent screens me personally. Agents always explain the personal search procedure, especially around sensitive areas like the breasts, as required by Federal law. During the procedure, I ask agents about their jobs.
A woman arrived at security with a 20-pound frozen turkey. Odd, I said to myself. What part of the country doesn’t sell frozen turkeys?
“What’d you do?” I asked the agent as she performed her job.
“I ran it through the x-ray machine,” she said.
“The bird was clean so I let her go.”
I’ve been at Sky Harbor since 2010. Wow, the stories I could tell about my service as a volunteer and the passengers/staff I’ve met.
For two and a half years (2014-16) I assisted in the English as a second language program for newly arrived refugees at the International Rescue Committee. Classes were broken into two sections, one for refugees who spoke no English and another for those with some English skills. I assisted refugees who knew some English. Refugees arrived from Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Cuba, Somalia, Nepal, Myanmar, and other countries. Besides learning about their cultures, I felt proud that I was part of their journey to US citizenship. I only gave up the volunteer job because the drive to and from the agency was at least 40 miles often in traffic. I then started to volunteer for another global humanitarian agency, Helping Hands for Relief and Development. I cover the office on Thursday afternoon and help with special projects.
For years, I shared a friend’s home so I didn’t worry much about paying bills on my meager Social Security income. I earned a little money now and then from writing but it was sporadic. My comfort zone collapsed during the 2007 recession when my friend lost her job. The bank repossessed the house and I was on my own. Social security barely kept my dog and me out of poverty. There were times when I dug through the trash for aluminum cans to redeem for cash. I bought day old bagels. Adding water to shampoo and dish soap made them last longer. I parted with middle class perks such as cable television, daily delivery of the Times, and new clothes. Thrift shops have a lot of bargains. Like others hit during the recession, I went down but found a way up.
If the accident never happened, and sometimes I wish it didn’t, I would have likely retired as a social worker. Maybe I’d have competed in more marathons and biked up more mountains. I’d have married and had kids. I’d surely have more money, maybe even a house. Who knows what would’ve happened? The accident changed everything. I had to deal with the physical and cognitive impairments from a traumatic brain injury that are permanent. I would have missed out on so many memorable and sometimes sad experiences that molded me into a better person. I may never have converted to Islam at the age of 60 (I met and befriend a Muslim at the airport where I volunteer). I have no regrets about the accident of 1/6/94 and the many wonderful experiences I’ve had as a result of it.
Debra White’s articles have appeared in Animal Wellness, Animal Sheltering, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Phoenix Business Journal, the Sierra Club’s magazine, Landscape Management, Dogs in Canada, Back Home, I Love Cats, Cat Fancy, Dog Fancy, the Latham Letter, NACA News, the Arizona Republic, Indian Country Today, the journal Social Work, Fostering Families Today, American Jails, Airports of the World, and others. She contributed a chapter to Dogs and the Women Who Love Them, published by The New World Library (2010) and wrote a breed specific book for TFH Publications in 2010. She self-published a book called Nobody’s Pets (told also from the animal POV) in 2001 that sold 3,000 copies.