Camp Days My role as a volunteer – By Steve Hilts

Our guest blogger Steve Hilts writes about his experience at our second annual Monkey Tail Ranch Camp Days!


Monkey Tail Ranch, Lugnut, Ben, French Fry, Captain Butter, and Hank the baby goat. What do they all have in common? They are animals at Monkey Tail Ranch located in foothills of Hollister.


Monkey Tail Ranch is a facility that trains service dogs for people with special needs. Owners Elise and her husband Tim started the facility and hold an event called Camp Days once a year. Camp Days is a three day event where families and their dogs get to come back to the ranch and get pampered by legions of volunteers.


That’s where I come in. This was my second time volunteering at the camp.


My official title was respite volunteer. Too fancy a title for me, I and the rest of the volunteer’s help watch the kids and try to pamper the family members so they could relax.


I was excited because this was my second year. I knew that I would be better prepared and able to help out more now that I knew what was expected of me.  Last year I shadowed a child by the name of Charlie who has autism. The family lives in Malibu which is located in Southern California. I had asked to be paired with them again this year since I had such a great time with them last year.


I arrived at 12:00 on Friday to help set up the tents that the families would be staying in. One out of the five families’ was already there. It was a family from Alaska.  Alex and his service dog Gus happily zoomed around. Gus off duty, sniffed and proceeded to greet every new person he ran across with a tail wag.

At around 3:00 the different families started arriving. The initial scene once the car rolled to a stop was pretty much the same.


A dog would bound out of the small confines of the car and took a quick sniff followed by a long pee and life was good!  Once the family members were greeted, an appropriate number of volunteers helped carry the family’s gear to their tent.


Then the assigned volunteers introduced themselves and started the pampering. It was a chaotic but happy evening as the different families and dogs interacted and settled in. Tim and Elise stood in the eye of the hurricane and quietly and efficiently directed the crew and organized things.


At around 7:00 PM a small white car pulled up and a yellow lab jumped out. Charlie had a service dog, Aspen that was a yellow lab, I wonder if it is them?


Then I saw Charlie mom, Charlene. She saw me and I GOT A HUG. Cool, she remembered me. Then Charlie exited the car. He pretty much looked the same to me. But unbeknownst to me things had changed!


I got somewhat emotional seeing Charlie for the first in over a year.


Anyway Mr. Emotional and my fellow volunteers helped them with their gear. I shadowed them discreetly so as to not overwhelm them with all the people and dogs that were running around. I was ready to swoop in and help when needed. Seeing that they were taken care of, I went to Tim and to let him know that I was headed home to check on my dog, Daisy as she had been by herself since 11:00 AM that day. Arriving home at about 9:00 PM I fed her and de-stressed by having some MM’s then went to bed. Up at 4:00 AM I fed her and we took a short walk. After the walk I left for the ranch. My friend Gabby would come later that morning to doggy sit Daisy for the day.


Once at the ranch I started eating a second breakfast that I did not really need but Chef Carol’s food was to good not to try!!


The order of events was that one or both parents and associated family members would go to Gilroy Gardens which was a small amusement park located less than an hour away.


If so desired the other family members would stay at the ranch and throw down some Yoga, get a massage, and have some adult beverages.


Lisa, another volunteer and I left the ranch at about 11:00 with Charlie and his mom Charlene. I sat in the back with Charlie and service dog Aspen. Crowded but due to Aspen’s training no problem.


Lisa navigated us to the park while I sat in back petting Aspen and keeping an eye on Charlie. My hand was resting on the side of Charlie’s car seat when suddenly he grabbed my hand and held it for a brief time!  Charlie had never initiated any physical contact with me,  so this was a first for Mr. Emotional! Wow!


We arrived at the parking lot and proceeded into the park. We then hot footed it to the different rides that we thought Charlie would enjoy. As Lisa navigated us to the different rides I would stay and watch Aspen if it was not a dog friendly ride.


I noticed that Charlie was much calmer this year. He for the most part stayed with us and did not run around. He also would hold on to the handle on Aspens service dog vest or the leash itself as he walked around. Last year it was a struggle to make this happen. We did a couple of rides until it looked like Charlie and maybe Steve needed food. We went into one of the restaurants and ordered Charlie’s favorite, French Fry’s.  As we were talking and eating Charlene asked Charlie if he wanted “more” or “water’ with a specific jester. After a moment it hit me it was sign language! I asked Charlene how many words Charlie knew.  “About 40” she matter of factly said. Charlie did not verbally talk but using sign language he could efficiently communicate.  “Can you teach Charlie to say, Steve’s the man” I kiddingly asked.


After lunch we hit some more rides. One of which Charlie enjoyed so much he rode it three times. As we walked out of the park, Charlie sported a huge grin and was making happy noises. The ride home was uneventful. I was in the back seat again with my posse, Aspen and Charlie.


Once back at the ranch, Charlene took Charlie over to the horses and Charlie rode Ben a special and very gentle horse a few times.  It was around 4:30 and there were tons of volunteers available so I checked out and drove home to Daisy.


The next morning I got back to the ranch at about 7:30 to help with the different family’s packing up. I guess I misjudged the time and was to early so I had to have breakfast !!I I sat with Stan, Cheryl and their son Jake who are from Utah.


At one point Stan turned to Jake and asked a question and followed up with a specific hand jester. Sign language again! Jake knew about 50 words Stan told me. Jake was a cool kid and very affectionate to his parents.  They were here for the first time checking out the dogs to see if it would be a good fit for Jake to get a dog. As I was talking to Stan, Tim brought Lugnut over to me and gave me the leash. Lugnut is a yellow Labrador and in the final phase of his training. Tim said to me “Let’s expose Jake to Lugnut”.”Ok” I said. I did some basic obedience with Lugnut to get him to pay attention to me and see what he was capable of. I held the leash and tried to connect Jack and Lugnut. Jake was intrigued with Lugnut but seemed a bit unsure about him.  So I slacked off the connection to ease Jakes apprehension. After a while Elise gave Stan some doggy food in a paper cup for Jake to feed Lugnut. I stood quietly holding the end of the leash motionless so Stan, Jake and Lugnut could interact. I did not want to be a distraction. Jake seemed more at ease feeding food to Lugnut with Stan’s help.  Once the interaction started to taper off I eased Lugnut away from Jake to end the exercise on a positive note.


After talking to Stan for a bit more. I saw Charlie zooming around so I switched gears and hung out with Charlie while their car was being packed up for the trip home.


Up until now Charlie and I had not really spent any time alone together so we ran around like we had the year before which was fun for me. Hopping, jumping, running and kicking balls. Once the car was packed Swifty, Charlene, Charlie and Aspen piled in and took off for home.  Feeling a bit sad for some reason I helped break down the tents then took off for home.


On the drive home I reflected on the past weekend. Who helped who? One noticeable side effect of helping others is the effect that it has on the person that is offering to help.


For me I gained an increased sense of self-worth and a calming satisfaction of doing something positive with no intention of gaining anything in return. I’m sure there is some type of a scientific expression for the effect. All I know is it was another incredibly rewarding weekend at Monkey Tail Ranch where miracles happen so often they are almost common place….


*** Monday morning at work. “Steve did you have a good weekend”? “Yep, I hung out with some cool friends of mine and their dogs.  Let me tell you about them”….…..