Mary Pat Bulfin, a Caldwell Fellow, had just returned from a LeaderShape conference sponsored by NC State’s CSLEPS (Center for Student Leadership Ethics & Public Service). She was looking for a way to translate what she had learned into a service opportunity. She had learned that the key to leadership is forming relationships. It’s about having people around you that you share a common experience with.
So she married that goal with the love she had for Jenna, a Sheltie Shepherd mix she had rescued from an animal shelter in 2005. The result is Pawssibilities, a new student organization on campus focused on outreach. Bulfin started it with three other friends, and right now the group has about 15 members who work with their dogs and with trainers, preparing them to go into hospitals and assisted-living facilities to visit with people.
“The whole goal of Pawssibilities is to empower students to let their love of animals be a catalyst to reach out to isolated communities in society,” Bulfin says.
The organization holds bi-weekly meetings, and Bulfin says NC State has been good about letting members bring their dogs to its facilities. She is especially appreciative to Chris Ashwell, associate professor in poultry genomics, who serves as faculty adviser, helping Pawssibilities solidify speakers to come in and talk about animal-assisted therapy. Speakers will either come help the dog owners train or speak about experiences they’ve had reaching out to those in need of love and contact.
You have to be nationally registered with the Delta Society, a national nonprofit dedicated to animal-assisted therapy, in order to participate in the therapy in these facilities. It’s a process that is quite intense with both a performance exam with the handler and pet and then a written exam for the handler. When they actually go into a hospital or nursing home, the handlers and their dogs interact in different ways, always getting a feel for whatever is needed. It might be some tricks in the form of canine freestyle that Bulfin and Jenna do. Or it may just be sitting still and letting their dogs be petted.
Forging these new relationships with hospital patients or elderly people is a natural extension from Bulfin’s time at NC State. “What the Caldwell Fellows program has brought me is tremendous relationships and has helped me understand leadership is about relationships,” she says. “That whole concept of bringing diverse people together is what the Caldwell Fellows are about. And that’s the core value of Pawssibilities.”