Twice a month, members of the Randolph-Macon College Students Engaged in Responsible Volunteer Experiences (SERVE) program head to a small farm just north of Ashland, where they work with some very special visitors: several dozen rescue dogs.
The canines, on their way to foster and rescue organizations in the Northeast, arrive from the Darlington County Humane Society (DCHS) in Darlington, South Carolina. The Ashland rest stop gives the dogs a much-needed break—and it gives students the opportunity to unleash some energy and make community connections. Students help unload DCHS vans, handle puppy play areas, walk adult dogs, and clean kennels. Susan Albritton, who owns the farm where the pups and people gather, hosts the Ashland rest stop.
An Extensive Network
"Due to high intake volume and low adoption rates, the Darlington shelter began a rescue effort several years ago to reduce the number of animals euthanized," explains Albritton, who has always loved dogs. "That effort evolved into an online forum that posts the dogs' profiles. Interested rescue centers across the Northeast select the animals they can accept into their programs, and the dogs are transported to the centers."
For the past five years, generous volunteers in Ashland—including R-MC students—have been meeting to help care for the dogs, known as "freedom riders," as the pups travel toward their rescue centers. "More than 2,000 animals were granted a freedom ride last year," says Albritton. "I am simply the host in Ashland, and one of the many sets of hands in an extensive rescue network."
The Ashland rest stop benefits animals and humans alike.
"The dogs, who are sometimes terrified from the transport experience, are so happy to get out of their crates to enjoy a walk and some one-on-one time with a human who is welcoming and reassuring," says Albritton. "Through this experience, Randolph Macon student-volunteers learn that each animal has love to give—and get. They experience firsthand that abandoned animals are loveable. The students can enjoy a romp with a lab, sit quietly with a fearful traveler, or cuddle a puppy—puppies are a favorite every time! A volunteer experience like this can have a lasting impact on everyone involved."
Ian Shelley '18, a business major and political science minor, says volunteering is an opportunity to be outdoors, have fun and give help where it's needed.
"Caring for the dogs is a great way to get involved in the Ashland community," says Shelley, a football player and member of Phi Delta Theta. "We walk the dogs, clean up after them, and make sure that they drink water." Once the dogs have enjoyed their break, R-MC students help them back into their cages. Some of the dogs are "flight risks"—mothers with puppies, or dogs who may be fearful of humans or prefer not to walk on a leash.
"R-MC students fill in wherever needed and keep this rest stop running," says Albritton. "Animals who have had a break and some human interaction arrive at their destinations calm, hydrated and fed. And, just as important, loved."
Warrenton, Virginia native Leif Heltzel '18 is a political science major and member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity and Pi Sigma Alpha, an honor society for students of political science and government.
"Being able to walk or play with a dog is fun for me, especially since I don't get to see my own dogs very often," says Heltzel, a member of the Yellow Jacket football team. "Volunteering gets me involved in the community and helps me build relationships with people. It helps give me a sense that there is always a greater cause than yourself that needs to be addressed."
A Learning Opportunity
Vanessa Lewis '12, senior quality analyst for the Virginia Retirement System, has been volunteering since she was a student at R-MC. Twice a month she meets the DCHS transport vans, and she also handles the rest stop in Albritton's absence.
"I immediately fell in love with this project," says Lewis, who majored in English and minored in communication studies. "I have always had an interest in animals, and this proved to be great outlet. I've been hooked ever since. The great thing about this project is the hope that is attached to it. Each animal on the transport will be placed in a rescue shelter, a foster family, or a 'forever home.'" Lewis says that volunteering alongside R-MC students is a fun, enriching experience.
"It is always nice when students volunteer," she says. "While I have found this to be a great stress reliever, it is also a great learning opportunity. Volunteers learn about animal shelters and all the work that is involved with animal rescues. Plus, it's also fun to see huge football players lose their cool over tiny puppies!"
In 2015-16, R-MC students collectively amassed more than 27,400 volunteer hours and donated $49,898.00 to various causes. Students in Fraternity and Sorority Life contributed more than 13,600 hours of collective service to the community and donated $1738.00 to various organizations and philanthropies.
In addition, $21,000 was raised and donated to the American Cancer Society from the annual Relay for Life.
Over 300 students participated R-MC's second Big Event, a day of service to give thanks to the Ashland community. The Students Engaged in Responsible Volunteer Experiences (SERVE) program, in the Office of Student Life, is an integral part of Randolph-Macon College.