Meet a matchmaking volunteer

Lillie Schlessinger started volunteering to fill time after retirement, but as she helps more and more pets find families, it's become so much more.
By Sarah Thornton

Chispa and Petal the dogs sleeping next to each otherThere’s something special about seeing a connection form between a once-homeless pet and a new family and then seeing the wagging tails, happy purrs, bright smiles and excited voices as they all get ready to go home together. Making those moments happen is what volunteer Lillie Schlessinger is all about. And it all started with an overlooked dog named Chispa.

Lillie and her son, Alan, were at Best Friends in Los Angeles, looking for a four-legged friend to adopt, but had not yet felt that really special connection with any of them.

After meeting some other dogs, says Lillie, a staff member asked if they would be willing to be set up on a “blind date.” Chispa had been passed over by adopters again and again during her time at the lifesaving center. Even Lillie and Alan had walked right past her. But then she was brought in for that matchmaking meeting. “And the rest is history,” Lillie says.

A few years after adopting Chispa, Lillie retired and decided to go back to Best Friends to help out. “While I initially thought I’d want to work mostly with the dog team,” she says, “I quickly found that what I most enjoyed was working with the adoption team to help people find the right match and understand how to care for their new best friends.”

Lillie Schlessinger and her son after adopting Chispa the dog, holding a sign that says, I adopted my best friend“We are so incredibly fortunate to have Lillie on our adoption volunteer team,” says Matt Yniquez, community engagement coordinator at Best Friends in Los Angeles. “She is a ray of positive energy and an absolute joy to work with. Lillie has donated so much of her time and energy to Best Friends and the animals in our care. We could not realize our goal to Save Them All without reliable and dedicated volunteers like Lillie.”

In the following interview, Lillie talks about her work as a volunteer and what it means to her.

What inspires you most in your volunteer work?

I’m always inspired by the other staff and volunteers. So many folks who care so much about animals and their welfare and are always willing to help. I’ve seen staff and volunteers go above and beyond to make sure that animals are taken care of and that adopters get the support they need. I’m also inspired when I see folks realize they are getting their new family member. I’ve seen people literally sing, dance, cry, call their parents. You name it.

[Never giving up on a senior pit bull with a challenging past]

What have you learned as a volunteer?

Lillie Schlessinger getting a kiss on the face from a small white dogI’m a relatively new volunteer (started in 2019) so I’m constantly learning. When I started, I could see that the adoption team had so much to do, so I kept asking what else they needed help with. Eventually, I learned most of the process and (since I) had my own computer access … I could process an adoption from start to finish. That put me in good stead during the recent shutdown since it enabled me to keep volunteering remotely doing kitten counseling, answering phones, entering data, etc. Staff and other volunteers are always willing to stop and answer a question or show you how to do something. It makes it so much easier to jump in when you know you have that kind of support.

What does volunteering mean to you and why do you do it?

Volunteering started as a way for me to fill in time after I retired, but it has become much more. I appreciate being part of the Best Friends community of staff and volunteers. I have a better understanding of what it takes to Save Them All and a real appreciation for the folks who do the work day in and day out. One of the things that surprised me was that I thought I’d be sad seeing the animals (at the center), and my family was taking bets on how long it would be before I brought home another dog. But I actually found that it has been a relief to see how well-loved these animals are. There is nothing better than hearing from adopters how their new pets have fit right in and are making their lives happier.

Tell us about your favorite volunteer moment.

I think my favorite volunteer moments are the most surprising and not necessarily the nicest. They include being drafted to help remove ticks from a puppy, getting a phone call from a woman who needed to find homes for 25 ducklings (and the subsequent call from her to let me know she’d succeeded), sending a firefighter home with his blue serge uniform covered in white fur from his new husky (he was fine with it), and listening to someone tell me about a pet they lost and that they are clearly still grieving.

[Kindergarten students help a three-legged kitten get adopted]

What are you doing when you’re not volunteering, and do you have any kind of  superpower?

Lillie Schlessinger next to a small brown dogI like to read, garden, travel, craft and use my superpower, which is finding great things other people have thrown away. I’ve furnished whole rooms with furniture, rugs, art, plants, etc. that I’ve found in alleys. Besides volunteering with Best Friends, I sing (badly) in my temple choir, and I enjoy taking dance classes.

What would you tell others who are thinking of volunteering?

For anyone who wants to volunteer, I would say it is never boring. It can be sad, delightful, perplexing, disgusting (I mean who really enjoys cleaning up dog poo?) and funny. Dealing with the people is often more challenging than dealing with the animals. (I’ve never met a kitten I didn’t like.) I was given great advice when I started: Always remember that you have something in common with the person you are talking to, in that you both love animals. That gives you some common ground to start with and you can go from there.

Make a difference for pets

By volunteering, you can help pets near you as they wait for and eventually meet their new families.

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Photos courtesy of Lillie Schlessinger