• Elana

Ubuntu & Mitzi the Therapy Dog

I love my freedom and have found so much joy in being able to spend my time doing the things I love. That being said, there came a point (about six weeks ago) where I actually started missing structure. I started missing having a purpose. It was so liberating feeling like I had all that freedom, until it wasn’t.

So I went about adding a bit more structure and purpose back in. At first I felt such negative feelings about scheduling my time, beyond when I had appointments or planned to meet up with friends. And I felt a little pang of commitment-phobia at the thought of making plans more than 2 or 3 days in advance. But I reassured myself that this didn’t need to turn into being overscheduled. I am still haunted by the memory of being triple booked for meetings, but I reminded myself that I was still in full control of how I spent my time, I just craved a bit more of a pattern.

I started putting my exercise schedule into my calendar. Instead of saying “it’s Monday, maybe I’ll go to yoga”, my calendar is now blocked for yoga during the classes I like to go to. I also put projects that I want to work on in there, or visits to the mosaic studio. And I can opt out or make other plans, but at least it’s a conscious decision and I won’t get to the end of the week thinking “oh no, I never got around to doing X” or “I totally forgot about Y”. I put things in my calendar like “make PB&J ice cream” and even though I moved it around a few times, it was in there and I knew it was something I wanted to get around to doing. And I’m so glad I did that because now there’s delicious ice cream in my freezer.

One of the ways I’ve been spending my time each week is with my sweet Mitzi dog, as a therapy team. I wanted to contribute to the world by volunteering as soon as I stopped working, but couldn’t find the right organization. Don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of great causes out there. But I needed to find the one that really spoke to me, that I would feel excited about and where I knew I could make a difference in someone’s life. As soon as I read up on therapy dog programs, I knew it was for us and I signed up for the training to receive Animal Assisted Therapy certification. Mitzi had already demonstrated such magical healing abilities as a non-certified therapy dog during my surgery and everything that followed, it seemed like a great idea to share her love with those who really need it.

We’re now heading into our fourth week at a facility visiting adolescent boys, ages 12-18, who are struggling with substance abuse and co-occurring mental health diagnoses. It sounds crazy, right? Boys as young as 12 years old who are being treated for substance abuse?! It is heartbreaking.

When I originally reached out to this organization in hopes of volunteering as a therapy dog team with children, and was told that the program I was interested in was full (great problem to have), but was asked if I would be open to visiting with teenaged boys, I was both nervous and confused. Were teenaged boys really receptive to strangers bringing a puppy to visit for cuddles and fun? It turns out, yes. Not only receptive but pretty excited.

I have quickly learned that these are sweet, misguided boys, many of whom never got a chance to be a kid, and all of whom are in a great deal of pain. Many of them come from unstable environments and really appreciate having someone reliable consistently show up for them. I thought our first visit went well, but as we pulled into the parking lot for our second visit, and Mitzi started pawing at her crate door, so excited for me to open her door and get to work, I knew that this was going to be great for both of us. She can’t wait to visit with her new friends and be brushed, get belly rubs and do tricks for these troubled boys each week. (And then she’s completely wiped out for the next 24 hours which is a bonus for me!)

One of the suggestions from the therapy dog organization that we’re a part of is to have a mat that you bring with for your visits for your pet to relax on, because this kind of therapy can be stressful for the dog, and they can even suffer from emotional fatigue. But instead of buying a mat from them, I ordered their patch and made one myself. It is so incredibly soft that before I even finished cutting the seam, Mitzi was belly-down, spread out on the cozy blankie, claiming it as her own. Once I finished it off, she was rolling around all over it. Success!



In a yoga class that I went to recently, the teacher talked about a concept called “Ubuntu”. She was reflecting on this concept in light of Nelson Mandela’s illness and described the premise by saying “a person is a person through other people“.

This really resonated with me, so when I got home, I had to look it up. It’s a term used in South Africa that, according to Wikipedia, roughly translates to “human kindness”. Desmond Tutu (who bears uncanny resemblance to Rafiki from the Lion King) described Ubuntu as:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole” … “Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

This really isn’t a unique concept. The essence is also the main theme of pretty much every religion and the moral of pretty much every story: “love thy neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you“.

So, this isn’t something new to me. But this reminder, and the chance to hear it from a different perspective, was especially meaningful for me having just started my time volunteering with these teens. Together with Mitzi, I will continue to embrace the sense of purpose that comes from this philosophy and will seek ways to be a better person through other people.

If I could just make one change… I would say: a person is a person through other people…and their dogs.

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