Community service hours.

Sixty to graduate, a hundred more for a shot at a scholarship.

Double that, and the school purchases a wooden plaque for the lobby in the kid’s honour.

They get praised for their civil service, maybe get their name in the paper, spelled right if they’re lucky. Mom and Dad brag to all the relatives on Facebook and Nana makes a post on her wall that was supposed to be a Private Message.

And then what? Do they continue being Model Citizens out of the goodness of their hearts (or egos?) Or pass the hours they used to spend as a volunteer in getting voluntarily ass-over-ankles drunk at university?

Diana didn’t care for the fame and glory of being the victor of the volunteerism contest. In fact, she forgot about the sixty-hour requirement until an unsettling phone call from the Principal’s office sent her father on a tangent at the dinner table about “apathetic snowflake millennials” and the “threat to democracy” caused by “those stupid Smartphones.”

Her mother gave her the car keys and told her to not come back until she found somewhere to do her volunteer work.

Diana wasn’t too enthused about the thought of unpaid labour but realized how she could make the most of it. All her life, she had begged her parents for a puppy. They gave her a brother, instead. So, she decided to drive to the local Animal Shelter to see if she could play with the abandoned dogs and cats for a couple hours after school and get her Volunteer Hours that way. She could take cute selfies with the animals and post them on Instagram. Maybe she’d finally break 1000 followers or get featured on a trending page. #animallover #puppyeyes #cute.

The building looked more like a prison than a pet sanctuary: concrete brick walls, a shoddy shingled roof with leafy gutters and water-stained windows. As she walked through the door, an odd aroma like feces covered in flowers sent a surge of heartburn up her throat. She swallowed it down and smiled.

The woman at the front desk looked like a French Poodle: cast-iron curls sculpted around a narrow forehead and dark-brown eyes. Diana shuffled forward, sniffling.

“How can I help you?” the Poodle Lady asked.

“Umm,” Diana began. “I was wondering if there were any volunteer positions available?”

And just like that, Diana was trotted through the shelter with an armload of pamphlets and Duotangs with rules and regulations, wearing the ugliest polyester vest she had ever seen.

“You don’t want your clothes covered in cat hair and dog kibble,” the Poodle Lady barked.

There were four rooms for the animals: two for the cats, two for the dogs. The sick ones were separated from the healthy(ish) ones.

Diana’s heart started shaking as she entered the first room and heard the high-pitched whines and humble howls. The dogs were crammed into grey metal crates, their name, age, breed, and bio taped to the side of the crate like some desperate dating profile.

Name: Bucky
Age: 4
Sex: Male, fixed.
Breed: Shih Tzu-Chihuahua-Pug mix
“If you want a calm, quiet friend fur life, Bucky is your boy!”

Bucky bared his small, square teeth at Diana through the bars, stumpy tail straight up in the air, a wheezy growl defying the claim of calm and quiet. Diana stepped back and into something behind her.

“Watch out!” The something — a teenage boy with shaggy hair and pointed ears — called. “Cat piss coming through!”

The boy ducked through a green door which led outside to the garbage bins. He came back out, wiped white dust off his hands onto a discoloured apron, and grinned.

“You our newest recruit?” he asked, holding out his hand for Diana to shake. She took his wrist and shook it up and down, instead.

“I guess so,” she answered, and eyed him up and down.

“I’m Paul,” he said, and stuck a narrow, claw-marked arm through the cage bars to give non-compliant Bucky a scratch on his companionable head. The dog closed its eyes and seemed to smile. “You’ll like it here. The work’s hard but our tenants are unfurgettable. I help my mom run the place.”

He noticed Diana looking at the scratch marks on his arms. “Okay, so some of them have got a cattitude problem. Nothing a little love and honeysuckle can’t fix.”

The Poodle Lady was called back out to the lobby. “I’ll let Paul take you on the rest of the tour, if that’s all right.”

They went into the cat room. Most were huddled in the far back corners of their cages, except for the kittens, who were batting around balls and play-fighting each other.

Two girls were gawking at an orange-striped tabby standing on its hind legs. An older couple were arguing between getting an American Shorthair or a Persian.

“The black and white one’s too generic,” said the woman.

“Well, the one you picked looks like it ran face-first into a window,” her husband snarled.

Diana bent down to look at the bottom cages.

Name: Angel
Age: 9
Sex: Female, spayed.
Breed: Birman
“A kuddly kitty-kat with a sweet tooth for Temptations!”

The cat peered up at Diana and revealed a bright blue eye and a tattered right ear. She noticed another sticker beside the cage listing the date the cat arrived at the shelter. Angel had been there for five months.

“Five months,” she said. “That’s a long time.”

Paul sighed. “People don’t like adopting older pets. They want to get the most bang for their buck, if you know what I mean.”

“Well, what happens if nobody picks her?” Diana asked.

Paul raised his eyebrows. “Don’t you know?”

“No.”

“Well… they get injected,” said Paul.

“Injected,” repeated Diana. “Injected with what?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “They get put down. Put to sleep. Euthanized.”

A slender white paw patted Diana on the knee and gripped her jeans.

And that was how Diana got grounded for using her dad’s credit card to adopt Angel and failing to make it through her first shift.

She ran out of the shelter with the shell-shocked cat in her arms, set her down on the back seat of the car and drove over the curb as she left the parking lot.

“This is ridiculous,” her dad said after she (unsuccessfully) tried to smuggle the cat, inside the kangaroo pocket of her hoodie, up to her bedroom. “It’s not like they can save them all.”

“Why not?” she shouted. “It’s not fair! That place is like Death Row. It’s dirty and crowded and smells like Nana’s living room.”

For the next week, Diana refused to eat meat or any animal by-products.

But then the boy with the Black Sabbath tattoo asked her on a date. She didn’t know what a Black Sabbath was, but broke her fast with a burrito and a smoothie to find out. She vowed to make it up the next day.

But then free pizza was given out at the school cafeteria.

And the next day she simply forgot, though the watchful eye of Angel reminded her of all the animals left behind.

Diana had read about revolutions in school. From what she gathered, they all started with an act of rebellion, which triggered other acts of rebellion, which led to an amalgamation of bad-assery, sexy slogans and (ideally) a change for the better.

She didn’t have a group of resistance workers or army of dissidents at her disposal. She didn’t have an action plan. She had nothing except her frazzled thoughts.

“You’re back!” said Paul, who was holding the door open for a man struggling to walk his newly-adopted German Shepherd-Great Dane mix. The dog’s tongue lolled out like a slice of ham. Drool dripped onto his owner’s leather shoes.

“Is your mother here?” asked Diana. “You said she’s the owner.”

Paul brought her inside and up a set of stairs hidden behind a beaded curtain. He unlocked the door at the top and ushered Diana inside.

They were standing in a living room with wooden floors striped with scratch marks. Two loveseats were crammed up against a window, facing a chunky TV set. There was a kitchenette at the back, with dog tags and cat collars strung along a row of Christmas lights above the counter. Others were hung outside the window: wind chimes. A pink-slippered woman padded out from behind one of two closed doors.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I —” Diana began. “I think it’s wrong what you’re doing here.”

“Excuse me?”

“Killing the animals that don’t get chosen,” said Diana. “I thought you brought them here to save them from the streets. You don’t have the right — you don’t have authority over their lives.”

The woman leaned back against the counter, her head cocked to the side and hands hidden in lint-filled pockets.

“We can only do what we can with what we have,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of resources here. We’re a small shelter in a small town where strays and unwanted pets aren’t the priority. We don’t have enough room to keep them here forever.”

“I keep writing to City Council,” said Paul. “But they never reply. One member even blocked me on Twitter. I’m thinking a good old-fashioned fundraiser might be in order. Like a bake sale. Or a bank heist.”

“The way I see it,” his mother continued, “We can either leave things to chance — let them roam the streets for a while until they get sick or hurt or hit by a car — or we can do something.”

***

A hundred hours.

A hundred hours and a hundred posts on the shelter’s social media page.

Diana featured one pet per day, sharing their stories and celebrating each adoption like a birthday.

When animals were put to sleep, she pasted their pictures inside her school locker beside a tally chart. The dash marks on either side were in constant flux.

Her friends started calling her the ‘Crazy Cat Lady.’ She hissed at the guys who mocked her fur-coated jeans.


A message from the author: I wrote this piece because I wanted to look at misconceptions people might have about volunteer work. I think people see these jobs as less demanding than other jobs because they are unpaid, when really there are many responsibilities that volunteers should be given more credit for. Volunteers play a huge role in building and maintaining the strength of the communities they serve.

I also wanted to look at what happens when people are forced to do volunteer work, such as the requirement to complete “Volunteer Hours” in order to be allowed to graduate from high school. Student volunteers may only be motivated by necessity, but whether this makes their actions less valuable is up for debate.

I want to show how efforts to promote positive change may also have negative outcomes, since the lack of resources available to an organization may limit what they can accomplish. I think it is important to accept that there are no problem-free projects, but as long as people are trying to make a difference, there is hope.