From strategic planner to traveling volunteer

Volunteer Jeff Harris sitting on an orange seat hugging a black and white dog in front of him
Jeff Harris took a sabbatical from his career, so he could help both people and pets.
By John Polis

After two decades as a strategic planner for the Utah Transit Authority and the state planning director for the Utah Department of Transportation, Jeff Harris was ready for a change.

“I got tired of what I was doing and wanted to focus on frontline care,” he says. “And while I still had interest in policy and planning, I wanted to do what I could to work on societal problems concerning animals, people and the homelessness that affects both.”

Though he was fulfilled by his work in transportation planning, Jeff says it was time to take a little break and refocus his efforts. That meant a sabbatical, which immediately took the shape of volunteering.

He’d already volunteered for a couple of years at a Salt Lake City-area food pantry. He did “grocery rescue” — picking up extra food and provisions donated by stores. Prior to the pantry, Jeff had volunteered at the area’s largest homeless shelter provider.

Volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

His love for animals beckoned, however, and he thought of Best Friends. “I had always liked what they were doing,” he says, recalling the Michael Vick dogfighting case that in 2008 brought 22 of the rescued dogs to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. He began volunteering at Best Friends in Utah in spring 2022. And last June, he headed south toward the Sanctuary in his pickup truck, towing a teardrop camper, to spend time volunteering at Dogtown, Cat World and Angels Rest.

He washed dishes, cleaned areas in Cat World, and tidied up kennels and walked dogs in Dogtown. At Angels Rest he pulled weeds, raked and reset paver stones. “I loved all my work at the Sanctuary but especially fell in love with Angels Rest, where I spent most of my time,” he says.

[Labor of love: serving pets and people]

After a few weeks at the Sanctuary, the lifelong Salt Lake City-area resident hit the road. He traveled north into Idaho and up through Sawtooth and Salmon-Challis national forests. And eventually he made his way back south to New Mexico, southern Colorado and southern Utah, finally returning to Salt Lake City in November.

Pat Theobald, supervisor of community engagement for Best Friends in Utah, met Jeff right before Christmas. “He was doing a shift as our lifesaving center ambassador (greeter), which is a starter shift for us,” Pat says. “He was immediately asking questions, inquisitive and wanted to be as helpful as possible to all the different departments. When he talked on the radio, he was always interested in meeting potential adopters and being as helpful as he could with everyone.”

Bringing things into focus

Jeff says he’s amazed at all the work Best Friends does, but a recent example at the center in Salt Lake City brought clarity to the reason he’s motivated to help.

“The staff brought in a husky who had just given birth to 10 little pups," he says. "Some of them were in bad shape when they arrived, and the staff was doing everything they could to help them along, including chest compressions, when two of them began to decline. Watching the love and compassion that was being poured out for those two little puppies — even though they did not survive and it was very sad — reinforced why I want to do this.”

Jeff makes himself available for any job that needs to be done — no matter how difficult or obscure. And since returning to Salt Lake City, he’s gone through animal care training sessions, done his first solo shift cleaning and feeding the cats, and is down to his last buddy shift in dog care before going solo.

Answering a call

“I guess working to help animals and people is part of my core values,” says Jeff. “The best thing I can do is help both people and animals live well.”

Showing no signs of cutting back his volunteer work, Jeff is still at the food pantry a couple of days a week, and he’s taking on more volunteer roles with Best Friends. He’s also still in touch with his work in transportation, volunteering on the leadership group for the Transportation Research Board, a subsidiary of the National Academy of Sciences’ Critical Infrastructure Committee.

[5 men making a difference for homeless pets]

“Meeting someone like Jeff who wants to start over and learn something new so he can help others and give back is a bit unique,” says Pat, who coordinates volunteer activities in Salt Lake City. “And it’s also special that he’s learned so much this quickly.”

Honored to serve

While Jeff plans to keep on the move for now, he’ll continue to reserve blocks of time for his volunteer work. “I’m planning to keep dirt-bagging it, overland camping stuff at least for now,” he says. “There’s a lot of country out there to explore, but volunteering at the food bank and Best Friends will always be part of what I do.”

With homelessness affecting people and animals, Jeff is at the stage of his life where he wants to help both. “People need help, but animals are at the mercy of a sometimes-cruel world. For them, even cleaning up and doing the dishes is an honor for me.

“I want to eventually return to work full time on the front lines, but right now, I’m just a dude in the crowd. I’m happy helping others.”

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