On Monday morning, a handful of soon-to-be William & Mary freshmen helped elementary-school campers at the Heritage Humane Society play with cats, cuddle with kittens and read to therapy dog “Finnegan.”
They were supposed to be learning about human-animal bonds, but the new members of the Tribe were also building some human-human bonds of their own, just weeks before they start their College careers together.
The students are participating in the “7 Generations” pre-orientation program this week, hosted by the Office of Community Engagement. Approximately 29 new students are participating in the program, which has them divided among three theme-based trips. Along with the trip about human-animal connections, the other trips include one that centers on hunger in Virginia and another that focuses on access to housing and healthcare.
Participants in each of the three trips not only learn about the issues involved in their respective trip themes, but they also participate in hands-on service projects related to those themes.
For instance, the students involved in the diminishing hunger trip are visiting and working with the Campus Kitchen, Grove Christian Outreach Center, Shalom Farms and the Peninsula Food Bank among others.
Those involved in the trip about housing and healthcare are working on the Eastern Shore, helping with community activities at William Hughes Apartments and serving with Habitat for Humanity.
In addition to serving at the Heritage Humane Society, the students on the human-animal connection trip will also visit the Richmond SPCA and meet with K9 officers from the Newport News Police Department.
On Monday afternoon, the group also visited Dream Catchers, a therapeutic horseback riding center for people with disabilities, where they helped do some cleaning before getting a unique experience.
“Two staff members actually gave each of our students brief rides on the therapy horses, simulating some of the experiences of their clients with disabilities,” said Elizabeth Miller, one of the trip’s co-leaders and coordinator for community engagement. “Students used the wheelchair lift, were blindfolded, and had simulated sensory overload. It was really incredible.”
Rising junior Kelly O’Toole, Miller’s co-leader, has worked with the Heritage Humane Society since September 2010. She said she was eager to share the things she had experienced and learned at the humane society with her trip members, while also giving them a deeper understanding of what it means to serve in the Williamsburg community in general.
“I think we’re really focusing on reflection a lot and making sure we understand why we need animal shelters in the first place and what sort of issues in the community make it a necessity,” she said, adding that those issues could range from poverty to assisting people with disabilities.
Even people who don’t own animals or don’t even really like them need to be aware of the effects that animals have on everyone’s lives, O’Toole said.
Incoming freshman Daniel Aboagye said that he was already beginning to see those effects through his experience on the trip.
“I think we have a tendency to not realize how working with animals affects people, too,” he said. “I’ve actually been realizing over the past two days that there really is a big impact. For instance, when we were learning about therapy dogs … you really begin to realize that through service with animals, you really connect to people, too.”
Aboagye said that he signed up for pre-orientation program because he wanted to meet some of his fellow freshmen and begin to get involved in the service community at the College.
Sarah Garratt also signed up for the program, in part, to get to get to know some of the people she would soon be seeing on campus.
She said that, even though her group had been together for just a few days so far, they were already very comfortable with one another.
“It’s been really great,” said Garratt. “They did a great job of making the first day not awkward or boring or anything because we weren’t doing hands-on service the first day, but we all got to know each other. It’s really been good so far. I love it so far. It’s good.”
The two said they were excited about the “educate, act, reflect” format of the program.
“We learn and talk about what each of the issues is that we’re going to be dealing with beforehand, and then we act by doing the service and working with the kids, and then we’ll reflect later when we are back together on the things that happened today, the things that we liked, the things that we noticed. I’m really excited for that aspect of it,” said Aboagye.
“Me, too,” said Garratt. “(The trip leaders) said it’s all about asking questions and sort of investigating things you’ve never thought about before with animals.”
And though the trip focuses on serving and learning, its participants can’t help but enjoy the simple joys of interacting with children and animals, too.
“Little kids and puppies, you can’t go wrong with that,” said O’Toole.