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Norma & Shelley: A shared purpose

Norma’s Delta Therapy Dogs journey started well before she even registered her interest to join as a volunteer. When you speak with Norma; you hear of a life lived with a focus on moving forward, a belief in community giving, and one filled with a joyful purpose.

It is with this strength and determination that Norma found and fostered Shelley; a then 18-month whippet who had moved homes numerous times before finding herself yet again at a local animal shelter. It was by chance that Norma came across the listing and so she contacted the shelter immediately to find out Shelley’s story. She found out that this was to be Shelley’s last chance of finding a forever home and so with a focus on the future, Norma made a promise that if she fostered Shelley, it would be a long-lasting partnership, which unknown to them was to be their first step towards finding a shared purpose.

“I always knew once I retired and had more time to myself that I wanted to give something back to the community. When the time came, I searched for something which was both exciting and felt like me.”, Norma recalls when asked about what led her to connect with Delta Therapy Dogs. After spending some time searching, it was by chance that Norma was out on a walk with Shelley when a lady stopped them on the street and commented on what a sweet dog Shelley was. “Oh, she was so happy to see Shelley and just kept saying how sweet and gorgeous she was”. This chance meeting prompted Normal to hop online and begin her search again. When she read more about Delta’s programs, she knew both she and Shelley had found their match.

After assessment and volunteer training, Norma and Shelley started visiting an aged care facility in Canberra. Over four years they visited the facility, followed by a dementia ward and mental health centre. Norma recalls visiting a resident a number of times at the dementia ward. Each time the resident would happily sit beside Shelley, without any conversation or interaction. One day, completely out of the blue, the resident said “I had a dog, his name was Spot!” The nursing staff were amazed as the resident had not uttered a single word to another person in the five years she was in their care. Following this moment, Norma made it a regular part of her interaction to seek out the resident and ask her about Spot, which often led to a brief conversation.

While Norma has always lived her life in a way that encouraged growth and looking ahead, when it was time to re-locate she found her way back to Albury-Wodonga where she had lived for many years raising her children as a single-parent. It wasn’t the direction she had planned, but she found the familiarity and community spirit was the kind of tree-change’ she needed. Albury-Wodonga presented opportunities to really engage with community groups, including a local dog training group where she still attends with her three dogs. Norma shared that each dog takes turns attending a weekly session, but every time dog training day rolls around, each dog thinks it’s their turn – something many dog-loving households can relate to. The dog training club has turned into more of a social outing for Norma and her dogs to meet like-minded people and pooches too.

Finding her purpose in her new hometown came easily. She returned to volunteering with Shelley and over time added her new furry companions to the ranks of Delta Therapy Dogs.

“For me I’ve always had to have a purpose with how I live my life. Volunteering with Delta gives me purpose and brings a lot of fun and fulfillment on so many levels. It’s not only great for my mind and body but there’s a real sense of giving to the community. On our way home from our Delta visits, I always look over at Shelley in the car and tell her, “You’ve made a real difference today!” And truly she has. Norma shares how the walk from the car to the cancer ward at the hospital takes double the time as Shelley often attracts the attention of patients in the waiting rooms, the café owner, and reception and nursing staff along the way. In fact the greetings often start in the car park with patients who spot Shelley as they arrive for their day treatment. “It’s a welcome interruption in an otherwise difficult day” Norma says. Patients are often accompanied by a friend or family member and so meeting Shelley means the joy is often shared across many pats and tummy rubs.

With over eight years of volunteering with Delta Therapy Dogs, Norma has seen the various experiences that life can present. It is in the cancer treatment wards where she has witnessed the courage, hope, and pragmatism faced by patients and their loved ones. On one occasion a daughter of a palliative-care patient came searching for Norma and Shelley as they had heard the duo were on Delta-visiting duties that day. When she found Norma and Shelley, she invited them to join her in her father’s room. Her father had been in and out of consciousness for some time and Norma was faced with the harsh reality of the disease as she entered the room.

“He was surrounded by his family. There were many tears and even though there was a sign that said no visitors, the family had sought special permission for Shelley to be there. One of the daughters asked Shelley to hop up on the bed when they arrived, and as soon as Shelley was on the bed, she gently placed her father’s hand on Shelley and started to help to move his hand in a patting motion. Shelley also has this special skill of knowing where to place her head and find your gaze. She does this while visiting and it really helps people in the moment.” The gentleman was still not aware of Shelley's presence, but after a few moments the daughter found that he had started patting Shelley on his own - a magical moment at the saddest of times. For the family in the room it was something they will cherish as moments later their father took his last breath while still resting his hand on Shelley. The family shared that their father had always had dogs in his life and his last dog was a whippet just like Shelley. In his last moments, he was able to feel the comfort of touch and joy which a gentle dog like Shelley was able to bring.

Norma recalls these moments with great emotion and pride. She says it’s a great honour to be able to meet people and also connect with those who understand and learn about healing powers of the human-animal bond.

With thanks to the Debbie Jesser Memorial Fund who proudly support Delta Therapy Dog Teams in Albury-Wodonga.

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