One San Diego teen is taking the idea of service to heart by making life better veterans, military personnel and homeless pets in her community.
Gabi Mark joined Pets for Patriots as a youth volunteer and has since touched countless lives by reaching out to veterans and shelter animals across San Diego County. After joining our cause in the fall, Gabi has accomplished three major projects towards her goal of devoting 100 hours to charity this year. A junior at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, leader of her local Girls’ League service organization and member of the girls’ basketball team, Gabi makes making time for others a priority in her life in spite of her busy schedule.
A homemade touch for Veterans’ Day
Veterans’ Day was just around the corner when Gabi joined our cause. I quickly learned that she’s a natural leader: as soon as we decided that her first project would be delivering cards to injured veterans, Gabi created beautiful design prototypes and purchased all of the supplies needed to make nearly 200 cards. She presented the idea to her Girls’ League and, over the course of a few afternoons, led a group of more than two dozen to craft and personally sign every card.
While the original idea to present them to hospitalized veterans met with some logistical challenges, Gabi was undeterred: she decided to present cards to veterans at the San Diego Veterans Day parade. Even better, she thought, the group would march and represent Pets for Patriots, too. Never mind that the parade was just days away!
The calendar and the clock were not in Gabi’s favor, but at the proverbial eleventh hour and after submitting an application to the parade committee, Gabi got word that the girls could march. With little time to spare she created a homemade banner and got American flags for her team. “Gabi and the girls,” as I’ve come to call them, joined the parade – but not before they thanked and presented cards to about 50 veterans they met while waiting to march. After she got home, Gabi instant messaged (IM) me with her trademark exuberance:
“Meeting all of the veterans was such an amazing experience!”
Of cookies, cakes and cards
The excitement of joining the parade and speaking with so many veterans only energized Gabi more. She set her sights again on visiting hospitalized veterans, figuring that not only could they use some good cheer, but suspecting some might not have family or friends close by to visit during the upcoming holidays. Due to the girls’ academic and athletic commitments, only a late afternoon or weekend visit would work. Another San Diego-based Pets for Patriots volunteer stepped in to make it happen: Bill Tyrrell.
Bill is a Pets for Patriots military outreach volunteer and United States Navy EOD (End of Duty) Master Chief (retired). He travels extensively for his job giving closure and comfort to military families all over the country, but as luck would have it he was in San Diego around the holidays. Moved by Gabi’s sincerity and spirit, he arranged to have the group visit Balboa Naval Hospital shortly before Christmas.
Gabi wanted to do more, so Bill arranged another visit to Balboa between Christmas and New Years. To deliver the full holiday spirit, Gabi and her team started baking, making sure to include what she learned was one of the veterans’ favorites: banana bread. The menu was rounded out with chocolate toffee oatmeal cookies, sugar cookies and five layer bars, with enough for the veterans in base housing as well as those in the hospital ward. And for this visit, the team was joined by Scotty Smith, another Pets for Patriots volunteer and Korean war Air Force veteran. Scotty never passes up an opportunity to uplift his brothers – or sisters – in arms, and often brings his own unique brand of cheer in the form of his little dog, Max. For this visit, though, Max would have to wait outside.
“This trip was definitely a life changing experience I will never forget,” says Gabi. “It was so humbling to thank our wounded warriors, and saddening to see how young most of them are…I am always humbled by these veterans who have sacrificed so much for our freedom.”
Llamas and horses and cats, oh my!
As deeply as she cares for other people, Gabi loves animals as well. Her dream is to become a veterinarian and it seemed fitting to add an animal-related project to her growing roster of service. Once again she mobilized the Girls’ League, which is always looking for ways to help their community and fresh new ways to give back. They were excited about the prospect of helping the animals at nearby Pets for Patriots adoption partner, County of San Diego Department of Animal Services. A two-week donation drive at their high school netted 16 boxes of much-needed supplies, including towels, blankets, leashes, toys and collars. Gabi went a step farther and solicited gift-in-kind and monetary donations from local pet supply stores, and in so doing helped spread the word about Pets for Patriots and the plight of homeless animals across San Diego.
“I am honored to be able to serve and give back to my community,” says Gabi with her trademark humility and grace. “It felt amazing to give!!”
Gabi and the girls presented their donation to the county on March 28 and received an extensive tour of the shelter. They were surprised to learn of the variety of animals there, including horses, llamas, sheep and goats – as well as the usual cats and dogs, of course.
“I can now tell the difference between a sheep and a goat,” says Gabi, “it is all about the tails.”
Next steps for our girl wonder
In 2013 Gabi will graduate high school and head to college, where she’ll begin her studies to fulfill her dream of becoming a veterinarian. It will be bittersweet when the day inevitably comes to pass that Gabi no longer has time to volunteer with us, and I’ll miss her poise, leadership and compassion that are so far beyond her years. My hopes are that she’ll return to us at some point in the future and, at the least, ask me to write a recommendation letter for college. Then again, perhaps I already have.
~ Beth Zimmerman, founder + executive director