It’s easy for some to think that our work at Show Your Soft Side is all fun and games, particularly on the eve of our signature event, Pawject Runway. We’ve been rolling out photos from last year’s event, which depict a room of 800+ people with grins from ear-to-ear.
Softies have that effect on people, particularly when they’re holding animals, but in all seriousness, we credit them for the success of our campaign. Our mission is to stop the despicable, cowardly and often-violent crime of animal cruelty. It’s a crime that often makes people turn away, but the campaign has proven effective because it engages people and draws them in. Our workload has increased exponentially because we must now harness the strengths and talents of 150 Softies, many of whom have become ambassadors for the cause.
Last fall we received a call from the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) of Washington, D.C., which has been working to garner support for and passage of the Wounded Warrior Service Dog Act, sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), that would provide increased funding to organizations that pair service dogs with wounded veterans. AWI inquired if any Softies would be willing to speak at a briefing for Congressional staffers and Softies Matthew White and John Rallo agreed to help. Matthew is a wounded combat veteran from the 82nd Airborne who credits his dogs with much of his recovery after suffering a devastating leg injury from an IED explosion. John is one of our inaugural Softies – and our first “cat guy,” who happens to be an extraordinarily passionate and gifted public speaker.
This was John Rallo’s second trip to Capitol Hill. In 2014, he spoke against breed specific legislation to a crowd on the lawn of the Capitol at the One Million Pibble March that Rebecca Corry – our first female Softie — organized. John had never spoken inside the elegant walls of the Capitol building itself and came prepared in a suit and with notes. On the drive down he asked, “Hey, do you have a lint brush? I always keep one in my car.” Yes, our Softies make us smile too.
We met Matthew, who knew his way around, as he previously worked as an intern in Veterans Affairs. Heads turned as he walked into the room and his eyes opened wide upon seeing the standing-room only crowd. “These briefings are generally not well attended,” he noted. Matthew soon recognized another speaker, Patrick Downes, a fellow patient with him at Walter Reed and a victim (along with his wife) of the Boston Marathon bombing. The reunion was a reminder of how many of us have experienced the therapeutic benefits of dogs and that the universe is indeed small.
Matthew White was the first and only veteran to speak. He described his experience in Afghanistan and the challenges of recovering from an injury that required his leg to be amputated below the knee. In his usual understated fashion, Matthew was not overly dramatic. “I became depressed and began relying more and more on alcohol to fall asleep.” He credited his beloved Nike from the Washington Humane Society with helping him. Matthew is a genuine speaker who never puts on airs. “But don’t get me wrong. I’m going to Puerto Rico tomorrow for vacation and I’ll have a few beers.”
After several subject matter experts took the podium, John Rallo was the final speaker. He discussed a new study that Perdue University just released documenting the benefits of pairing service dogs with combat veterans. While not a veteran himself, he spoke of the therapeutic benefits that animals have provided to his father, an Alzheimer’s patient. Afterwards, several asked if he would be willing to testify in the future.
We are proud of our Softie ambassadors who remind us that compassion and empathy are good, but not enough. We must use our limited time to take action and use our voices if we ever want to move the needle on causes that matter. Yesterday, our Softies did just that.