First American Volunteer Spotlight: Denean Richards

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First American’s Volunteer Spotlight program recognizes employees who are active in their communities.  Each month, employees record their volunteer hours, and one employee is selected at random to receive a donation to the charity of their choice.

Denean Richards, a California-based sales director in California, shares her time with Operation Freedom Paws, an organization that empowers veterans and others with disabilities to restore their own independence. Operation Freedom Paws teaches them to train their own service dogs The dogs, usually from rescue organizations or shelters, are carefully evaluated and matched to a specific client’s physical and psychological needs.

How did you get started with the group you volunteer with?

 Last Spring, I saw an ad for a community Easter Egg Hunt at Operation Freedom Paws (OFP). I had been looking for a group to support locally, so I volunteered to help out at the event and fell in love with the people and their mission. OFP takes rescue dogs and trains them to work with the specific issues of veterans, disabled people and kids with special needs. When I found out about all of the incredible things they were doing to help people and dogs, I was hooked. Mary Cortani, the founder of OFP and a CNN Hero, was giving me a tour when she mentioned that they wanted to get a garden going but they didn’t have someone to focus on it. I immediately said, “I’ll do it!” and within a couple of weeks, we had the beginning of a garden. I’ve been an organic gardener for about 10 years, so I knew this was something I could do and would enjoy doing. Now I’m known as the “garden lady.”

What do you find most rewarding about your volunteer work? 

I’ve always felt it was important to give financially to groups and causes that were important to me but just giving money felt a little empty. I really enjoy working with the other volunteers and the clients at OFP. It’s building a relationship that’s so satisfying and I love that when I come to work on the garden, the clients are lining up for hugs. I love seeing the smiles on their faces when I bring the fruits and veggies in for them to take home. It’s very satisfying being a part of a group like this. It’s great to help and know I’m doing something good. But to actually get to know people and form friendships -- that’s what I love the most.

OFP 2.jpgWhat has surprised you most about your time with the group?

There are two things really. The first is just how fond I am of everyone there. This is truly the most amazing group of people and I absolutely adore them. My husband and I were planning a getaway, and I suggested we leave just a little later on Saturday so I could go to OFP first to do my garden work and see everyone. I miss seeing them if it’s been too long and never expected to become so attached to everyone there. The second is just how little I knew about the challenges many of our veterans have. Some have multiple challenges like PTSD, TBI, depression and other trauma, all at the same time. It’s overwhelming for me to even imagine, let alone for someone to experience. I can’t fix those issues, but I can give them a warm hug, a smile, friendly conversation and some healthy food. And sometimes, that’s all someone needs at the moment.  OFP is a safe place for these people to come and focus on healing. It’s truly an honor to be a part of that.

 What do you hope to accomplish with this group in the future?

 My husband has been a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight for about 15 years now. I recently worked with Angel Flight to create a partnership with OFP to fly Angel Flight clients to training at OFP, which speeds up the process of the client receiving their dog.

The next step is to do some training with the veterans and dogs at an FBO and get them up in small planes so the clients and their dogs can experience what that type of flying is like. It’s very different from commercial flying. Then if the veteran needs to fly to medical treatment with their dog, they’ll be more comfortable and know what to expect.

I also want to get the word out to as many people as possible about OFP. The work they do is life-changing and life-saving, as many veterans just can’t get the help they need through traditional channels. OFP is highly specialized and it takes about $15,000 and nearly a year to train the dog and human to work together. They have a wait list of over 150 people who desperately need a service dog.  We need to raise a lot of awareness and money. I tell everyone I know about OFP and the amazing work they do. If you give to charitable organizations, please consider Operation Freedom Paws.  Sign up for their newsletter and read about the incredible work they’re doing and donate at It’s such a worthwhile group. I honestly think I’ll be a part of it for as long as it’s here. It’s become a part of my life.

What advice would you have for someone who’s interested in donating his or her time?

Find a group or cause that speaks to you and that you’re passionate about and then find something they need that you enjoy doing or that you’re really good at doing. That just makes it a lot more fun! When you put your interests and passion together with a need in the community, it’s really magic. You’ll know it when it happens. In our disconnected world, working in your community is a great way to improve the area you live in and the lives of the people who live there. And that makes it better for everyone.

FirstAm Editor

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