As a recent French graduate, I moved to Brussels in search of work and adventure. It was there that I came to faith through friendships with two Christian girls; one a neighbour and the other a colleague. I remember seeing something different in my new friends – they had a certain joyfulness and kindness that intrigued me. After two years of questions and discussions about their faith, I too became a Christian. Although my introduction to Christianity was somewhat gentle and far from extraordinary, my faith was to mature and be sorely tested as the years progressed.
As a brand-new Christian, I then embarked on a new adventure. This time I headed to Botswana, where I was to spend a year as a French interpreter for an overland safari company. I loved the simplicity of life under canvas and the challenge of setting up camp in the bush, watching the animals and taking care of the guests. At night, once everyone was safely tucked up in their tents, I would read my little red Bible by torchlight; often only managing a few verses before falling asleep after the physical activities of the day.
Returning to Belgium after my year in Botswana, I knew that a desk job was not for me. My faith had also reached a point where I felt that I wanted to serve in some way, but how? My work wish-list included: ‘a physical and mental challenge’; ‘being outdoors’; ‘helping people’; ‘getting a dog’. These criteria led me to Veterinary Medicine. I had not studied Biology GCSE and had no maths nor science subjects at A-Level; the decision to study Veterinary Medicine was therefore a surprise to many! Undeterred, I crammed for a year and passed the entrance exam to the University of Liege the following September.
The 7 years of study in Belgium were gruelling. My faith was tested both due to the academic stresses and a personal trauma that turned my world upside down. How could a loving God allow such suffering? What had I done to deserve this pain? And yet, it was also my faith that allowed me to survive, persevere and graduate with Distinction. Most importantly, those years gave me an unwavering trust in God and an even stronger desire to share His love and compassion with those who are suffering.
As a new Vet graduate, I spent an amazing year vetting in Australia and New Zealand. The highlight was undoubtedly working with a flying vet in Northern Australia. Flying over the Australian Outback, treating cattle and camels, and perpetually covered in a thick layer of red dust, I was the happiest I had been in years! But the love of family finally called me home. I therefore returned to Scotland and found work at a Small Animal practice just outside Edinburgh. To satisfy my growing desire to be involved in Pastoral Care, I also started working with students at my local church.
Through my life in practice, I was struck by the effects of human loneliness and isolation, particularly amongst the elderly pet owners. It saddened me that there was so little time to deal with the pet and give the owner the time they clearly needed to talk. I also became increasingly aware of the vital comfort and companionship that many pets provide for their human families. I recall several instances of, “this is the dog that helped me get through my chemo”, or “this is the cat that kept me company when my husband died.” The potential to bring peace to people – by coupling the therapeutic benefits of contact with animals with the support of Pastoral Care – was clear.
In 2016, I therefore decided to leave Veterinary Medicine and establish the charity ‘Pet and Companion (PEACE)’. PEACE provides Canine Therapy along with Pastoral Care to people in need of support and companionship, particularly, the elderly; patients receiving palliative care; and students during stressful periods. The PEACE dog provides a comforting presence and helps create a relaxed environment and a positive distraction. The Pastoral Carer is there to offer support and companionship to the person being visited.
Our aim is to help alleviate the loneliness and isolation experienced by many of those we visit, and thereby improve people’s mental health and general well-being. Our vision is to have PEACE Teams of Pastoral Carers and their therapy dogs visiting people in need of support in Care Homes, hospitals, hospices and university and college campuses all over the country.
I feel very blessed to have ticked off everything on my work wish-list and to be doing a job that I love. More importantly, I am delighted to report that we have now made well over one thousand PEACE visits. The PEACE network is also growing with new PEACE Teams coming onboard in the Aberdeen area, and others due to join us in Midlothian in the near future. Here’s hoping that our vision of PEACE Teams helping people nation-wide will soon become a reality.