Volunteer Vacations Helping Man’s Best Friend
By Leah Craig Chumbley

As long as I can remember, my parents always planned fun family vacations—a  rafting trip down the Colorado River, a week at a dude ranch in Utah, a cruise to Jamaica, a sightseeing tour of New York City, boating on a lake in Idaho, fishing in Rhode Island, and of course a week at an East Coast beach. Both teachers, they always stretched their salary to make sure that my sister and I had great childhood memories of time spent with our family.


But as we grew older, family vacations were no longer the exciting, enjoyable time they used to be. My sister and I spent a lot of time on our cell phones longing to be at the party our friends were having back at home and our parents. Fed up with our teen-age attitudes, our parents decided it was best if we stayed in separate hotel rooms.
We had the been-there- done- that outlook and family bonding time was driving us all insane. So my parents decided to try something new, something to pull us together as a family, something to remind us how blessed we are, and something that would provide us with an unique experience.


Our family has always shared a love for animals; together we have rescued numerous dogs, cats, and even turtles over the years, many of them ending up as household pets when no one else would take them. It was this passion that connected us and it led us to define ‘family vacation’ in a whole new way. We decided that once a year we would visit a non-profit organization where we could volunteer our time to help those who are in need.

It only made sense for us to pick a non-profit that benefited animals, and so on our first trip we flew out to Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. Best Friends is home to around 2,000 animals that they rescue and adopt out. We arrived at night and settled into our cottage located on the sanctuary’s grounds. In the morning we awoke to find that our front yard was home to horses and donkeys, and our cottage backed up to beautiful rolling red canyons topped with snow.  It was breathtaking.


We spent our mornings taking dogs on walks, cleaning the kitty areas, feeding the bunnies, and talking with the lively staff. One afternoon, while enjoying a delicious vegetarian lunch at the sanctuary’s café situated on the edge of a vast canyon, we had the pleasure of sitting with one of the founders who told us the story of how Best Friends got started.

The sanctuary is surrounded by the Golden Circle of national parks in Southern Utah, which provided us with wonderful sight-seeing opportunities as we explored the unique near-by towns each afternoon. At night we were allowed to pick up a dog, or two, and take them back to our cottage for a sleep-over. My mom was making plans to return before our plane even left the ground.

The next year we were off to Catskill Animal Sanctuary, a farm animal sanctuary in Saugerties, New York. We arrived on Christmas day in Woodstock, New York, and were shown to our home for the next week; a finished attic overlooking a waterfall where we instantly felt at home.

That night we joined in the Woodstock Christmas celebration, a night full of food, music, and the most colorful people I have ever met. It was a Christmas day we will never forget and one we have a hard time portraying to those who were not there to experience it.

Each morning we drove to Catskill Animal Sanctuary where we worked on the farm. We mucked stalls, fed chickens, filled the hay loft, shoveled cow manure, woke up 1,000 pound pigs, and loved every minute of it. The staff members were compassionate, strong willed people who we enjoyed working with and getting to know. Each afternoon we spent time as a family visiting near-by towns to sightsee, shop, and enjoy home-made meals.

We left each destination with the usual tacky souvenirs stuffed in our suitcases, but unlike other vacations we also took with us a deep appreciation for what we have in this life and for the opportunity to help those in need.


These unusual family vacations bring us closer together in an environment that inspires us to promote change, to live life for others, and to value the things that really matter. They allow us to try unique activities, refresh our souls in the outdoors, open our minds, and meet wonderful people who work hard each day to make a difference.

Volunteering at these organizations has given us the chance to experience new parts of the country and their local people in a way that no site-seeing tour ever could. We return home united, our passions made stronger, and our priorities set straight; for as we know, giving of yourself always becomes the best gift you’ve ever received.

Leah Craig Chumbley is a senior at North Carolina State University, majoring in Public Relations, minoring  in Non-Profit Studies. You can reach her at  lcchumbl@ncsu.edu. This is her first article for BAFT. 

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