Solidifying your purpose through volunteering

A child with a dog

Erin McClellan, then-3 years old, cuddles with her dog, Dallas, in Flinton, Pennsylvania, 2000. McClellan joined the Air Force in 2015. (Courtesy photo)

A selfie with a kitten

Airman 1st Class Erin McClellan, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, poses for a photo with a kitten at the Kansas Humane Society, Wichita, Kansas, July 8, 2017. McClellan volunteers at the humane society nearly every weekend. (Courtesy photo)

MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan.— The day my parents brought me home from the hospital, I was greeted by my mom’s dalmatian, Dallas. I had pets my whole life until I joined the Air Force in 2015.

Leaving home at 18 and learning to live on your own is hard. The way I see it, leaving home at 18 and joining the military is harder — not only do you have to learn how to live on your own, but you also have to figure out how the military works all while being hundreds of miles away from your family, friends and everything you know.

Adjusting has been tough at times, and for me, not having a furry companion to curl up with at the end of the day has been one of the worst parts. Because I’m a single Airman with less than three years of service, I’m required to live in the dorms on base, which means the only pet I can have is a fish. Fish are great and all, but I think we can all agree that having a fish isn’t the same as owning a cat or dog — you can’t cuddle a fish.

To try to fill the void, I spend time every weekend volunteering at the local humane society.

I got here in March 2016, and three weeks later, I was sitting in an orientation class for humane society training. Since then, I’ve volunteered more than 116 hours there doing everything from feline personality tests to helping with surgeries.

In a way, I’ve used my volunteer experiences to my advantage. When I joined the Air Force, I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up; the only thing I’ve ever really been sure of is that I want to work with animals. Earlier this year, when I started to consider becoming a veterinary technician, it made sense to start volunteering in the shelter’s spay and neuter clinic, and I realized pretty quickly that it’s a career I want to pursue.

It’s been around six months since I started helping in the clinic, and every time I’m there, I continue to soak up as much knowledge as I possibly can. The surgeries are usually pretty routine, but when something different comes up, I jump on the opportunity to learn about it. Last weekend, I was able to help the doctor re-splint a puppy’s broken leg.

Volunteering obviously won’t teach me everything, but I feel like it sets the stage and gives me a little bit of a head start on the things I’ll learn when I go to school to become a veterinary technician.

You can give back to the community while also getting a lot out of it for yourself — you just have to find something you enjoy.

Volunteering should be something you enjoy doing. It can and should be more than just your supervisor “voluntelling” you to help at some boring event on base. I didn’t spend 116 hours at the humane society for a bullet. I wake up every Saturday morning and go because I love helping animals and it has helped fill a void in my life.