Congratulations to our 2023 Ann DeMatteo Alumni Service Award Recipient, Alexa Tavasci (Alpha Alpha). The Ann DeMatteo Alumni Service Award is presented to one or more deserving alumni each year for their efforts to improve their community. Alexa was nominated by Kasey Stevens (Phi).

“Alexa and I have known each other for at least 12 years, but truly got closer in the last 2,” says Kasey. “Alexa has been an amazing friend and confidant who inspires me and supports me (and others in OPhiA). Her care and compassion for those around her shows, and truly reflects itself in the service she continually provides to her communities. I am thrilled to be able to nominate Alexa for the Ann DeMatteo Alumni Service Award because of her long dedication to service.”

Alexa and her family have volunteered at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT for the past decade. 

Alexa actually found out about the Sanctuary on her way to Convention in Salt Lake City in 2012. Growing up, this cool television show called Dogtown showed the work being done at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary to help rehabilitate dogs that everyone had given up on. It was one of those places that you always thought would be so cool to visit and experience but assumed you never would – just some place that existed on TV. Convention 2012 was in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Alexa drove to SLC from Flagstaff, AZ. On this drive, just outside a little town called Kanab in southern Utah, she saw a big sign in the dark off the highway with the logo for Best Friends. She recognized it from the show and started freaking out. She could not believe that for three years, she had been living just a few hours away from the Sanctuary. She called her parents and let them know how close it was and they began planning our first trip which would take place a few years later.

Now, for a week each year, Alexa volunteers with her family at the Sanctuary, helping to clean, feed and work with around 1,600 cats, dogs, birds, horses, pigs, bunnies, and other animals in the care of Best Friends. They often have taken in animals that no one else would, including the dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s dog fighting operation which everyone thought should be killed. The people working there have such interesting and diverse backgrounds but have all landed in this beautiful place because they care deeply about the animals. 

Alexa remembers working with one caregiver from the Dogtown TV show during a volunteer shift who told her about how he used to work on Wall Street but it never brought him any kind of fulfillment like his work at the Sanctuary does.

Alexa taking a friend for a stroll at the Sanctuary.

I’ve heard Alexa talk about volunteering at the Sanctuary A LOT. It is a passion of hers, and she truly LOVES the experience. She says it is definitely a “work hard, play hard mentality”, living on-site and volunteering for a week at a time. With the number of animals that live there, they truly cannot function without a robust set of volunteers. Helping clean is a big necessity, but it helps the staff be able to do so much that they normally wouldn’t have as much time to do, like providing or coordinating additional medical care and potential adoptions. Alexa has told me stories about each animal area having unique activities such as taking pigs for walks, bunnies or cats for strolls, spritzing parrots for a refreshing bath, and clicker training for dogs and cats. She knows the Sanctuary’s goal is always to have volunteers enjoy their time though, so they won’t ever ask someone to do something they aren’t comfortable with or don’t want to. 

Although every volunteer shift is a new adventure, here’s what a day in the life of volunteering at Cat World was like for Alexa and her family:

8:00 am – Check in at Headquarters and find out who needs the most help. My family and I don’t mind some of the dirty work, so we are always offering to be placed at the house of anyone who needs some extra hands. 

8:15 am – We head down a few buildings to CalMar which is the building for cats who are positive for FeLV (Feline Leukemia). It’s a highly transmissible cat-to-cat virus that used to be a death sentence but there are places, like Best Friends, working hard to provide care for cats who test positive for this and proving that automatic euthanasia does not have to be the only solution. 

8:30 am – It’s a busy day at CalMar with only one caregiver working and a house full of high medical needs cats. There are nearly 40 cats in the building spread across 3 rooms and a lobby area. My mom gets to work on dishes while my dad starts with some cleaning, and I start reading the meal prep guidelines and preparing breakfast for the rooms so the caregiver can continue providing medical care. 

9:30 am – My dad is still off roaming around, sweeping and mopping while my mom folds laundry – under the supervision of many cats. I help the caregiver get weights on the cats scheduled to be weighed that day. FeLV weakens the cats’ immune systems, and so they are often riddled with chronic health problems so it is especially important to keep an eye on their health. 

10:30 am – With a lot of the cleaning under wraps for the morning we spend the last part of the shift giving some socialization to the cats. There’s a new one hiding high up on a shelf and my dad is on a step stool speaking softly to her trying to get her to come down. My mom is carrying around a less than 5 lb sweetheart who is battling FIP for the second time – which is a miracle. And I’ve grabbed a blanket and cuddled up with a tiny little tuxedo named Jesse, who is fighting through all sorts of medical issues making her a little messy but still deserving of love. 

11:30 am – We break for lunch and head over to an on site cafe where for $5 you can get a vegan hot lunch. Today was 3 bean enchiladas and some delicious vegan chocolate cake.

1:15 pm – We check back in at CalMar for our afternoon shift. There’s still a little bit of cleaning to do but otherwise the afternoons are often for socializing with the cats. It may not seem like a very important task but it’s something that the caregivers don’t always have time to do with all the feeding, cleaning, and medicating. Not every building in Cat World will have volunteers every single shift. It also helps develop skills for some of the shier cats that are likely going to help them get adopted in the future. Socializing can include petting, playing with wand toys, feeding them treats (in puzzles or baby food by a spoon), and generally teaching them that humans aren’t always so bad. 

2:30 pm – It’s a beautiful afternoon and 2 of the rooms in the building don’t have access to their catios (fully enclosed outdoor section of their rooms) due to some maintenance so those cats are getting a little stir crazy. We start taking cats out on stroller rides on the nice path that is out behind the cat buildings. Some of the cats love it and when they see the open stroller they jump right in. We spend most of the rest of our afternoon doing this to try and get as many cats outside as possible. 

3:45 pm – The end of our shift is quickly approaching and the cats still need their afternoon feeds. Since we had learned how to do it that morning we started working on opening cans and prepping the food so the caregiver could continue giving meds. It’s not something we always get to do when volunteering so it felt pretty special to be trusted with it! 

4:15 pm – We get distracted finishing up and hanging out with the cats, having lost track of our shift ending at 4pm. We say goodbye to the caregiver for the house and let him know we will try to be back the next day unless another house needs us!

Alexa keeps going back because there’s just something about being in the beautiful atmosphere where you forget about the rest of the world. Alexa appreciates being able to let go of her other responsibilities and just focus on the love, attention, and care for these animals who others have given up on. Sometimes volunteering with animals can be exhausting and feels a little hopeless, but Alexa feels that when you can filter out the stress of it and focus on simply improving the life of that one creature for a few hours it feels so meaningful. 

One of the opportunities available to volunteers is to take animals on sleepovers. There have been numerous cats and dogs Alexa has had the honor to takeon sleepovers but there are a couple that really stick with her. The first dog she took on a sleepover was named Phinny. When you take a dog out, the caregivers will often explain some background on the animal’s story and things to be aware of. He was dog-reactive and couldn’t share a run with other dogs, so he was stuck by himself. He loved people, so he often would hang out in the office of his building with the caregivers. He was also considered a “weatherhead” meaning when storms rolled through he was completely inconsolable and couldn’t be out on sleepovers so Alexa had to be prepared to bring him back if there was any change in the weather. Lastly, they shared with her the reason they thought he might have some of these problems, and why he had a unique look to his face. The awful story behind his endearing little square-shaped face was that he was hit with a baseball bat. And yet, he was the sweetest dog who snuggled Alexa all night and would follow and wait for her outside the bathroom. All this, even after a human had caused him so much harm. The following morning Alexa had to take him back to his dog run and she just cried because she felt so helpless knowing what he had been through. 

Alexa keeps going back to the Sanctuary year after year, so that even for a few hours she can make animals like Phinny feel safe and loved.