Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” ~ Mary Anne Radmacher
It’s taken me a lot of time to decide whether to write a story about when your efforts to do something good are met with a less than welcome response from those on the receiving end. I’ve been very fortunate for the most part. That the traveling I have done and the sanctuaries I have chosen to be a part of offered an opportunity to learn and grow and although not everything always went smoothly, at least I felt like my efforts were generally appreciated and that I was able to contribute something valuable back.
So many people I see travel with the sole goal of taking what they can when they can – the souvenirs, the photos, the memories, but they don’t ever actually make an effort to leave anything good in their wake. It should be more like this I think – give AND take.
My most recent volunteer project was a return visit to a sanctuary where I spent some time last year for a photography project. There are 60+ rescued animals on-site in a very remote area of New Mexico. As with all sanctuaries, the staff and rescues live on donations and of course to receive donations, people must first learn about you and your work, and the best way to get your name out there is through advertising. So I spent 10 days in 2013 and returned for what was supposed to be another 7 days in Fall of 2014 to capture as many new photographs as possible, pro bono, so that they would have these high quality images for advertising, promotion, gift shop items, etc. and would be able to generate revenue or awareness for an infinite amount of time using whatever images that I produced.
This is something I planned out 9 months in advance, and I covered the complete cost of my own flight, meals, rental car, etc. as well as put in countless hours of time processing the photos once I returned home. It’s not easy for me to get away because I have tons of responsibilities with my home, pets, and business, so I have to plan very far in advance, and I try to choose my destinations carefully.
Although the first year at the sanctuary also was quite a rough one with empty propane tanks, nearly impassible roads, broken heaters, empty water tank and a lack of preparation or information shared within the staff as to why I was there, I managed to have fun and made the best of it. I was also promised that if I returned everything would be so much smoother and my time would be better utilized.
So against the better judgment of all my friends and family, back I went this October for round 2.
My first clue that things were amiss is when I got an email from my primary contact, and someone I considered a personal friend, about a week before I was set to arrive. The good news is that it included a schedule for me. The bad news is that instead of showing the photography I would be doing each day with what animals, instead there were only 3 days were I was actually taking photos and the other days were spent working as a gift shop attendant or cutting up food in the meat kitchen.
To say I was caught off guard was an understatement. If I was signing up as a general volunteer somewhere, of course your daily duties vary to wherever you’re needed most, but that was never the arrangement of this trip. I quickly wrote back to clarify what we originally agreed on. I explained that this was a shorter, condensed trip compared to last year’s trip, so that I can really focus on helping them with as much photography as possible during my stay and I’m not willing to take time away from the photography to get trained/work in a gift shop or cut up carcasses, maybe some other time ….
Fast forward to 17 hours of travel between the flights, layovers and drive time and I arrived dusty, hungry and jet-lagged but otherwise okay at the sanctuary early Wednesday afternoon looking forward to seeing the people I considered friends and the animals I adored. I was immediately shown to the cabin that I would be using, which was off a little dirt road surrounded by rustic woods. From the outside it was a cute little 12×12 pre-fab cabin.
What I wasn’t at all prepared for is that when I opened the door I quickly saw that it had no water, no electricity, no toilet, no curtains and had large chunks of insulation and wires hanging from the ceiling and my new roommates were wasps. There also was no internet or cell phone service so if something went amiss after business hours when the sanctuary was locked up I was SOL. All of these things I can deal with, but it really would have been nice to know ahead of time so I could have planned accordingly.
Then once I had unloaded my luggage and returned to the office:
- I quickly asked to talk to my contact and I was told she wasn’t available.
- I asked if I could take a walk around the sanctuary (since I had free roam the prior year) and was told no, I wasn’t allowed.
- I asked where I could set up my laptop to work and was told there wasn’t a place.
- I asked if I could use what appeared to be an empty desk in the office and was told that the maintenance workers sat there sometimes so no, I couldn’t use that area.
- I then asked if we were going hiking the next morning with 2 of the rescue animals, but was told no, the Director was too busy doing other things and finally….
- When the staff schedule was pulled up on the computer, there was nothing entered for the days I was there. Not one thing. So officially now I was here, and not one person was scheduled to help me.
So even the days that I originally was told I would be able to take photos were not happening. But it was offered that I could make Halloween decorations in the kitchen if I wanted to.
I went back to my cabin that night completely devastated and isolated. Although I asked several times to speak to my contact I was told she was “on tour” and then later when I asked again, that she was driving to an educational program and didn’t have a cell phone. So no, I couldn’t talk to her. At least given a key to the campground bathroom and loaned a towel so I could drive the mile up to the bath/shower house to use the bathroom that night.
Sure enough, just like the previous year, around 4am my propane heater shut itself off randomly and wouldn’t restart. “Click” Just like that my heat was gone. At 30 degrees outside with nothing but 2 very, very thin blankets I had to put on my ski jacket, several sweaters and just tried not to move so I would conserve heat. I started calling the office at 5am and leaving message because there wasn’t any other way to get ahold of anyone short of driving around in the dark and banging on doors.
Luckily I discovered that if I laid dead still in one little corner of the bed my cell reception would actually work. So I seized the opportunity to call the airline and for a mere $350 charge, I changed my ticket to leave 2 days later, the soonest available flight out.
For those two days I tried to be anything but completely miserable and one staff member kindly took me in with the two rescues he cares for so at least that gave me something to do for a couple hours a day. The rest of the time I mostly spent wandering through the sanctuary, taking photos through the wire of the enclosures and feeling absolutely terrible that these animals who clearly remembered me and wanted to have attention and affection, I could barely even pet because no one had the time to let me in with them to do what I traveled so far to do.
To make matters worse, the heater in my cabin was still obviously broken. I asked repeatedly the next day if it had been fixed and got no answer. I finally went with a staff member at 6pm and he tested it and it seized up on him as well. I then begged to be able to just sleep on a cot in the office for those next 2 nights so I would know I was safe and was told I wasn’t allowed to. That I could go back and sleep in that freezing box, and that the heater was fine, it was just a “user error.” After all, “other people have stayed there and didn’t have a problem at all.”
Really? So that’s the same thing you say when your car was running fine yesterday and today it’s not so it must be user error? Because things don’t break, or leak, or stop working? (sigh)
I was literally in tears and begging to speak to either the Director or my contact in person. Again I was told no. My contact was having a bad day, and the Director just turned off his two way radio, and drove right by me as I was standing outside by my car crying asking to speak to someone. That pretty much says it all. A woman is crying, saying how unsafe she feels, and you simply turn off your two way radio, tell her it’s her problem, and keep on driving.
So for my last 2 nights I ended up having to sleep in a loft of another cabin with some kind people I didn’t know. The nearest town is an hour away so there’s no place else I could go, I was basically stranded. And again, my cell reception stopped working because of the remoteness of the location.
I headed for the airport at 4am three days after I arrived. I literally could not have gotten out of that place fast enough. I did try reaching out to my contact, who I also had thought was a friend, once I returned home in an effort to try to talk about what happened in more detail. To try to alleviate any hard feelings and clear the air. But although I asked her to call me when she had a spare moment, I never received a call. And it’s now been 2+ months so that call is obviously not coming.
Despite everything, I spent literally days at home working on processing photos for them to use for their own promotional purposes. 450 photos in all. This is time taken away from my own personal projects, and time away from paying jobs.
The end result?
Other than +/- 5 images, none of my work has even been put to use. That’s a donation of $2500 in photography plus the $1800 I spent out of pocket to travel there and back basically for nothing.
To be made to feel that I was no more than a thorn in their side that no one had time to deal with.
I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to volunteer some amazing places and meet some amazing people, like at the Elephant Nature Park, where volunteers are so greatly appreciated and cared for because they know that volunteers are what makes the sanctuary what it is. However now I also know that not all places operate this way and try as you might to do something positive and worthwhile, in the long run the recipient still may be at the best less than grateful, at worst annoyed that you are there taking up their time at all.
Despite being the most disappointing and miserable trip I’ve ever taken, it did make me feel so very grateful. Grateful for where I live, for the people in my life, for my business, for my ability to get myself out of that situation (even if it did take a couple days) and for the fact that most of my efforts to do good things have ended well.
As a post note to this story, I feel like it’s important to add that within 48 hours of posting it, I was contacted by a representative for this sanctuary and told that none of my photographs would be used “until further notice” per their management unless I removed this blog. Although the name of the sanctuary and type of animals they rescue isn’t included anywhere in here, they felt that it was more important to react spitefully rather than use the thousands of dollars worth of free advertising that I donated to them. Very, very sad to see when people react this way instead of in a way that is in the best interest of the animals.