Instead of dwelling on the sadness of losing his dogs, Brandon Pockstaller decided to make the lives of other dogs—and the shelter workers who care for them—a little easier.
Before meeting his fifth-grade teacher at Briarwood Christian School last fall, 11-year-old Brandon Pockstaller and his mother squeezed in a special delivery at the Greater Birmingham Humane Society. All Brandon could think about as he helped staff members unload two carloads of items his family and friends had donated was how many animals would benefit from the supplies, from newspapers that would line puppies’ and kittens’ kennels to large dog beds that would spare several canines from sleeping directly on the hard floor. But, for Brandon, the delivery was also the weight of loss becoming a little lighter.
In 2006, Brandon’s parents adopted two terriers, Trudie and Jimmie Dean, from the GBHS, two years before Brandon was born. As he grew, so did the bond between him and the dogs. He was heartbroken when Jimmie Dean died first from complications related to canine diabetes and heart problems in 2018, and then again when Trudie died from canine cancer in July 2019. “After Trudie’s death, our family was grief-stricken, and our days of mourning seemed especially long since Brandon was out of school for summer vacation,” Susan says. “Our home felt so lonely and sad without Trudie there to greet us, and without her almost legendary begging antics.”
Susan talked to her son about how to cope with his grief, suggesting he channel his emotions into work that could help other shelter animals like Trudie and Jimmie Dean as they await adoption. “I explained to Brandon that this was a time in our lives that we could choose to turn our sorrow into service by volunteering at the Humane Society since that was where we found Trudie and Jimmie Dean. It was mid-July when Trudie passed, so our upcoming travel plans prevented us from being able to adopt immediately, but we could still volunteer our time to help at the shelter.”
Brandon decided to volunteer at GBHS as a “Paper Pal,” shredding and stacking newspapers for the kennels, and then interacting with the animals. “In some ways, it was overwhelming to see so many dogs and cats who needed a home, but my mom and dad had already talked to me about that part and reminded me that we should just focus on the ways that we can make their lives better while they wait to be adopted,” he says. “All of the shelter animals deserve a loving home.”
He gave a dog named Ellie tummy rubs and played fetch with another named Omega. He played with the cats, too, and even read books to them. He gave them the gift of his full attention, and they returned the favor. “I think it helped both of us feel better to spend time together,” he says. “Seeing dogs like Ellie and Omega wag their tails made me see that I could make a difference and help them feel better, and in turn, that helped me feel better too.”
Helping at the shelter was not enough for Brandon, though. He wanted to do more, so he coordinated a donation drive in his North Shelby neighborhood. He typed a letter for his mother to post for him on social media, and he decorated a plastic bin to place in their yard for donated items the shelter needed most.
The response was overwhelming. In just a week, Brandon amassed more than 500 newspapers, 137 towels, 11 fleece blankets, 38 cleaning rags, 35 sheets, 29 pillowcases, two pet carriers, two large dog beds and a variety of new pet toys—a load of supplies so large that it required two vehicles to deliver it to the shelter. He took the time to write thank-you notes to more than 30 known donors, plus a general letter to all of the anonymous donors. “It was fun getting phone calls and messages from people who wanted to donate and traveling with my parents to pick up the donations,” Brandon says. “It made me feel really good to see that so many people love animals as much as I do and to imagine how many animals we could help by working together.”
In the past several months, Brandon has continued to collect newspapers from his neighbors for local shelters. He has also volunteered with Shelby Humane Society’s WoofPack dog training program, which teaches basic obedience skills to shelter dogs in an effort to increase their chances at being adopted. “He worked with a dog named Freckles,” Shelby Humane part-time foster coordinator Meredith Dempsey says of his first session with WoofPack. “He taught her the basics, ‘yes,’ ‘sit,’ ‘watch’ and ‘touch.’ He is more quiet and reserved, which translates well to working with dogs. He is more observant and patient, and less impulsive.”
And Brandon says he was impressed with how quickly the shelter dogs can be trained. “Most shelter dogs can learn the ‘sit’ command in just one session, which has a huge impact on making them more adoptable,” Brandon says. “It makes me really happy to help them learn such an important skill that increases their chance of finding a good home.”
Perhaps it was also a good refresher for Brandon for what—or who—was to come. Brandon’s family recently adopted an energetic 2-year-old pug named Berkley. “She has stolen our hearts and filled them with joy,” Susan says.
But this has not slowed Brandon down in his volunteer work. He’s still helping at the Greater Birmingham Humane and Shelby Humane societies. His newest outlet is Shelby Humane’s new Canine Enrichment Program, which provides daily enrichment items to dogs in their kennels. “One of my first jobs for this program was filling rubber Kong toys with peanut butter, and it was a lot of fun handing those out and watching how excited the dogs got about playing with their new tasty toys.”
Brandon says he wants to continue to help Shelby Humane grow the enrichment program, even adding supplies the shelter has requested for it to his Paper Pals Collection Bin list in case his neighbors want to add to their newspaper donations. What new needs will surface next? He might not know now, but he’ll start chasing them as soon as he finds out. In the meantime, there is always work to be done—dogs to be trained, cats to be visited, newspapers to be sorted, adoptions to be completed. “My volunteer work is very important to me because I know that I’m helping homeless dogs and cats feel loved,” he says. “I want to keep as many dogs wagging their tails and cats purring as possible until they can find a home.”
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HOW TO HELP
Shelby Humane Society has an Amazon Wish List of items needed for its Canine Enrichment Program. Along with items like Kongs and other puzzle toys, cardboard tubes from paper towels, toilet paper and giftwrap rolls are needed. For more information about this or other programs at SHS, you can visit Shelbyhumane.org or call (205) 669-3916.
To find out more about volunteer opportunities at the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, contact Volunteer Manager Kate Hollingsworth at KHollingsworth@gbhs.org.