Pushing through the doors of Buddy Dog Humane Society, Ashley, 21, is greeted by a cacophony of barks and howls courtesy of the shelter’s canine residents. She pauses by the reception desk to pet Chase, an oversized golden retriever, and then, as she has every week for the last four years, she gets to work.
Since Ashley is deafblind, the noise doesn’t affect her concentration. In the shelter’s miniscule kitchen, she opens can after can of cat food, emptying shredded chicken and tuna into metal bowls and delivering them to the hungry felines down the hall.
Ashley and her classmate Win, both students in the Deafblind Program at Perkins School for the Blind, spend every Monday morning volunteering at the shelter in Sudbury, Massachusetts. They feed and water the animals, wash dishes, clean litter boxes and replace soiled newspaper in cages – all with little to no assistance.
“They immediately pick up whatever we have them do,” said Donna DeWallace, Buddy Dog’s director of volunteer services. “It’s great – we enjoy them and they’ve been a huge help.”
Perkins students have been volunteering at Buddy Dog for more than a decade as part of their vocational training. Experiencing work first-hand helps students who are blind or deafblind develop job skills and learn about future employment opportunities.
“A lot of it is learning the difference between an interest and a job,” said Job Coach Adam Pulzetti, who accompanies students to job sites. “Ashley doesn’t love cats, they’re not her preferred animals, but she’ll fill the bowls because it’s her job – that’s what she’s here to do.”
In June, Ashley will graduate from Perkins with a wealth of job experience. In addition to her work at Buddy Dog, she’s held positions at Codman Community Farms, Russo’s Market and Petco. In each placement, she’s become more comfortable interacting with supervisors and working independently.
“It’s been a great confidence builder for her,” said Pulzetti. “She’s now able to ask, ‘What do you want me to do next?’ or she’ll say, ‘I finished the cat bowls, now I’m going to see if so-and-so needs to go for a walk.’”
Ashley is nonverbal and uses sign language to communicate with Perkins staff and classmates. DeWallace doesn’t sign, so the two communicate by typing messages on an iPhone with the screen magnification turned on.
On a recent Monday, Ashley holds the phone close to her face and types out a question: “What can I do now?”
DeWallace suggests taking one of the shelter dogs for a walk, and Ashley responds with a thumbs-up. A few minutes later, she and Lily, an 8-year-old Chihuahua, head out for some fresh air down a nearby path.
Volunteering at Buddy Dog has reinforced Ashley’s love of dogs, and she hopes to find a similar volunteer job after she leaves Perkins. In addition to feeding and exercising, she’s learned how to provide calming massages to shelter dogs who crave human interaction.
On this particular morning, Findley and Bentley are the lucky recipients of Ashley’s attention. The 1-year-old terrier and 2-year-old pug beagle mix wrestle for space on her lap, tails wagging frantically. She slowly calms them down, petting their furry heads with a look of pure joy on her face. It’s clear that for Ashley, this part of her job doesn’t feel like work.