What happens when activists go on vacation? Do they retreat to turquoise waters and white sand and bask in the sun? Yes! Do they try to meet as many change-makers as possible in hopes of finding inspiration and motivation? Absolutely!
We visited Puerto Rico a few weeks ago and among other marvelous things, we volunteered at Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asis. There we met with change maker Dellymar Bernal, who along with her team leads the animal sanctuary in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, with 300+ dogs and cats. They rescue, provide vet care, find them forever homes, lead educational efforts in favor of spay/neuter and general kindness to animals, and advocate on their behalf. Dellymar is a librarian at a local university, a vegan, and an example of someone who is guided by her unwavering principles and her burning desire for change.
We scheduled an appointment on Sunday at 8am, and as we approached the gate, the Welcome Committee greeted us with barks and tail wags. A crowd of about fifteen other volunteers waited outside with us, young people mostly. Dellymar gave us a tour and a rundown of the rules and we were split into work teams. Ollie and I were placed in the senior team, and we started off with great steam. Divided by areas, the dogs were fed, then let out unto the socialization areas while their cages were cleaned. Some of the senior kennels have beds (which they are still in need of), and all got some love.
Ollie was placed in the “Sobeteo” Department (which literally means rubbing). His task was to play, socialize, and give the dogs some loving as their cages were cleaned. He took his job seriously and played endlessly. He also participated briefly in the SASFA Reading Kids program, which encourages kids to read to the dogs. This serves a dual purpose: it empowers kids’ reading skills and soothes dogs with the rhythm of kid books.
The Sanctuary has teams of volunteers that lead the programs. In the words of Dellymar,
“At SASFAPR, we have different programs. The first one is community education on Law 154 for Animal Welfare and Protection, responsible pet guardianship, the importance of spaying and neutering, and adoption. We also have physical adoption programs in PR and the US (called Alas de Amor (“Wings of Love”) in partnership with other organizations), long-distance adoption for those people who can’t have a pet due to time and space reasons, and temporary foster homes. Another important program is our Internship program with the RUM (University of Puerto Rico- Mayaguez Campus) specifically with the Agriculture Faculty, the Department of Animal Science, and volunteering, in which young people learn through service. This year we established a partnership with the International Humane Society and Animal Medical Hospital to start a low- cost spay and neuter campaign; we are very excited, since we will be able to save thousands of lives.”
Madeline Martinez founded the Sanctuary in 2007. She spotted some abandoned buildings by the side of the road and decided to use them. The buildings belong to the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus. They agreed to allow her use of the space and signed a contract. Madeline started the project, and her daughter, Dellymar runs it. In the beginning, the team cleaned up the buildings and have slowly improved the structures, built the kennels, added an office space and a recreation area for dogs, and a fresh coat of paint for many areas. They do not have electric power (they have a generator) or running water (they pay for water tanks), but what they lack in resources, they have in commitment.
The Sanctuary depends on individual donations to care for the 300+ dogs and cats, veterinary bills for all of them, travel costs for some shipped to the US for adoption through collaboration with Bide-a-Wee and Stray from the Heart among others. There are no government funds available for their work.
I was very impressed with the education work that they lead, and I asked her how that aspect of the Sanctuary came to be. How did the idea evolve from just rescuing animals to establishing an education program?
From the first moment the Sanctuary was organized, we included community education as part of our mission. We understand that if we don’t go beyond the four walls of the Sanctuary to educate on these important issues of animal abuse, abandonment, and uncontrolled reproduction of animals, the problem will worsen. It is one of the pillars of our organization. At this time, almost 8 years after our formal incorporation, I can attest that we have impacted close to 5 thousand students, and if each of them in that workshop learned about animal protection laws, about spaying, neutering, and adoption, we have taken a great step towards our vision: “To build a compassionate, sensible, conscious community where the life and rights of animals are respected.”
A vegan, Dellymar has been able to speak about compassion for all species, and they intervened once in the rescue of a cow stuck in mud. She says:
“Veganism was for me the next step after 18 years of vegetarianism, it is the consistency in putting into practice what I preach about animal welfare. We have grown up within a culture where as kids we are brainwashed that for the meal to be complete, there had to be a piece of meat in it, where milk is something basic in our shopping list, and breaking with tradition is still a great challenge. Fortunately, there is a vegan movement throughout the island that helps in having variety when you eat out and what you find in supermarkets. In spite of this, even to people close to you, you have to explain them what veganism means; that it is a commitment to animals, to yourself and to the planet. It is odd that we have to explain and even justify the idea to people who don’t know much about the movement, but it also becomes an opportunity to educate the double standard within the animal welfare movement in PR defending domestic animals while they devour a meat dish. I believe that we are heading to open new opportunities to spread this message on veganism and ethical decisions.”
When I meet other change-makers, I always want to know what makes them that way. I am curious what sparks led to that ignition of determination. I asked Dellymar where her love of animals came from, what makes her want to change the world.
“The love for animals started when I was in my mother’s belly, when my mother was pregnant and slept with 15 cats and my first word was the name of my cat, so that is in my genes. I always saw how my mom rescued and helped animals within her possibilities and I helped her as a child. I started to be active in 2007 and since then it has been a process of finding my purpose. One of my mottos is “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is a commitment at all levels. I constantly mention that our country and our world need people committed at all levels, since they are the ones who will change the world. It is because of this that every decision I make goes through the filter of, was it tested on animals? Does it have animal products? The use of language so as not to belittle or perpetuate speciesism. Thanks to them [animals], I have reconnected with my humanity, they have been my greatest teachers on compassion, solidarity, loyalty, love, and in their eyes I find hope and the strength to carry on. I am eternally grateful since in these years of activism I have found marvelous people that become my extended family, like Ollie, Karen, and you.”
Ollie loved the experience and so did I. I marvel at the impossible that they have created. From unused space, abandoned buildings, drug dens, to a space filled with life, filled with hope, filled with love. This woman has gathered a team around her; her commitment is such that she inspires greatness and commitment in others. She is so amazing and so humble and so understanding and so loving, and you can breathe all this in every space of the Sanctuary. You can breathe the love.
We never take a vacation from ourselves, so we carry our activism with us. I love meeting other change-makers, people making a difference in the world, seeing their projects first hand, letting ourselves be inspired by their courage and determination. Together we build a kinder, just, more compassionate world, even on our spare time. Volunteering with our children while on vacation also teaches them that changing the world is fun! Lending our hands is not a sacrifice, it’s a privilege, it’s our duty! And it expands our heart and gives us purpose and a family in the new friends we make.
The Sanctuary is living proof of what can happen when we act together, when we want the world to change, when we care about change, when we persevere, against all odds, for something bigger than us, an opportunity to make the world a better place. It certainly is a better place for the 300 dogs that now have a second chance at life.
To help them carry on their labor of love, you may donate here: http://sasfapr.org/
NOTE: Writing this post, experiencing this Volunteering Day at Sasfapr inspired me to dream, led me to a vision which I have since wholeheartedly embraced and which I am working to bring to reality. I am very excited to launch it through this particular post. Thank you Sasfapr and Dellymar for your time, for your friendship, for all your work in carving out this piece of heaven on earth, and for unearthing this dream of mine. Folks please find my ambitious new project, Activists on Vacation and let me know what you think!