If you had made a bet with me in 2007 that I’d be passionately captivated and devoted to volunteering with mentally and physically challenged seniors, I would have lost that bet hands down. But the truth is, I didn’t discover this wonderful world on my own. It took my cat, Guido the Italian Kitty, to open my eyes to what has become a bi-weekly event for us and a huge part of my life.
Every other Friday for the past five years Guido rides in my backpack as he and I travel to the ARC of San Francisco to visit 72 seniors — many afflicted with autism, Down syndrome, blindness, and cerebral palsy. You probably think we drive there. Nope, Guido and I travel on San Francisco public transportation, starting on a bus and then a real San Francisco cable car, which drops us two blocks from the senior center. The cable car drivers know Guido well and often say to the other passengers, "Hey, did you know this cat has a job?"
At home, Guido is a cat with his own typical catitude and tantrums. But when we enter the ARC and he’s out of the backpack lounging in my arms, nothing startles him. He’s unaffected by the raucous, exuberant greetings people have when they see him. Those who have speech challenges will yell out "Gee Doe" or "CAT here," while some whose lives entail not touching anybody will race to Guido to tap his back, pet him hurriedly on the head, and then race away with a smile.
The on-site nurse gets into it, too, when she takes Guido’s blood pressure or checks his heartbeat to make sure he’s still ticking as he snoozes in a yarn basket. But the tables get turned when he’s catnapping and the manager hilariously says, "I’m going to write Guido up for sleeping on the job!"
The seniors love having Guido join their activity tables; he likes dominoes, which he excels in knocking down. No matter how noisy the place is, Guido sails through his job without wiggling a whisker.
Guido and I often join their activities, such as chair exercises or dance. (I lead because he has four left feet!) Guido participates in each activity in his own way, and seeing the seniors smile is what fuels me to keep on giving up my Friday mornings at my job to take Guido to his job.
People are astounded that Guido is a certified animal-assisted therapy pet, because he’s a cat. The question we’re most often asked is, "How did you train him for this job?" I didn’t! When Guido was just a year old, I received a call from an elderly San Francisco friend who was bedridden, feeling yucky, and thinking of going to the hospital. Concerned, I called a mutual friend, asking if he could drive me to visit her. He said, "Let’s take Guido to cheer her up!"
So we did. And we found her quite pale and just lying in bed almost lifeless, until I announced I had a surprise for her. I brought Guido out of my backpack and set him on her bed. The color returned to her skin, and Guido curled up next to her on her bed as she conversed with him. Eventually she and Guido shared time at her breakfast table, we got food into her, and she was smiling and more energetic when we departed. That’s when I realized I had a cat that needed a job — animal-assisted therapy, here we come.
Guido and I enrolled in the San Francisco SPCA’s Animal Assisted Therapy program, whose volunteers visit 80,000 people per year in the city. He was tested for his agility and tolerance when not in his natural environment. The day he received his Animal Assisted Therapy vest with his name embroidered on the side, he made me so proud.
A number of years later, Guido was honored at the War Memorial Opera House by a local nonprofit that bestowed the Purring Cat Award of the Year upon him for his work. It was so special to receive this honor in front of 1,000 people, but even more special to be approached at the reception by a woman who said, "Your cat has inspired me to get my dog into animal-assisted therapy."
Our adulation for the seniors has spread to Catster and Dogster pals via Worldwide Pen PAWS, a global group of furs who bond together for friendship and also mail Halloween cards to every senior at the ARC senior center. We often take mail for granted, but these challenged adults are often without family or friends and never see mail, so the treat of announcing "You’ve got mail!" is the gift that gives miles of smiles for a very long time.
In between visits to the ARC, Guido and I have also visited hospital recovery wards and recently did five months of hospice work, visiting a gentleman who had cats in his life prior to his illness. It was magical to watch Guido plant his paw on top of the man’s hand, and just lie near him. People ask me how I manage to get through moments like that and not be sad — honestly, it’s gratifying to know we’re giving back to our community. I can’t imagine my life without Guido doing his job.
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