Up in the Shetland Islands lives a furry friend who’s helping people feel less lonely.
For #OneKindThing, we’ve been asking you to do just one kind act for someone – to surprise them, to help them or to put a smile on their face.
A dog called George already has that box ticked.
Meet George’s owner, Gillian
Gillian Ramsay works as a Community Connector for the British Red Cross. She supports people who feel cut off from their community. And she’s got first-hand experience of that.
Her family moved from Yorkshire to the Shetland Islands 28 years ago. Gillian was a successful businesswoman. Her life was turned upside down when her husband set fire to their home and tragically died by suicide.
Losing her home to a fire was devastating, and her husband’s death was an even greater loss. Gillian shut herself off from friends and family.
Living in a very rural area meant that she barely had any human contact during this time of self-inflicted isolation. She felt totally alone.
Volunteering for the British Red Cross
When Gillian found her feet and was ready to start working again, she heard of the community connector role at the British Red Cross.
She felt it was a good fit for her. It would be flexible and would allow her to use her understanding of what it’s like to live in her area. Best of all, it would allow her to work with George.
George is Gillian’s therapy dog. After helping her with her own struggles, Gillian realised that George could help others too.
“Just stroking a dog and having a dog lowers blood pressure – it produces feel-good hormones,” says Gillian.
“There’s just something magical about George that people see when they meet him. He was destined to be a therapy dog. He just exudes calmness and love and affection.”
Our four-legged volunteer helps people who feel lonely
Together, Gillian and George try to help people on the Shetland Islands who are struggling with loneliness.
And because it’s such a rural area, loneliness is incredibly common – it’s hard to get around, it gets dark early in the day and there isn’t a huge amount of people to meet right on your doorstep.
“We have a bus here once a week to take you into town. So, if you are with a young family, you can’t get into town to meet people. And the difficulties in a rural and extra rural isolation, like Shetland has, throws up this issue of people being lonely,” explains Gillian.
Gillian takes George to meet a wide range of people, including children and teenagers at school who stay on the main island, and who often miss their homes, families and pets.
George also supports adults, like remote oil and gas workers working around the islands, who immediately warm to George.
“I’ve seen grown men sit with tears in their eyes and one arm around George,” remembers Gillian.
Who has George helped?
Martin, 43, has lived on the Shetland Islands for five years. He’s an artist who first moved to the islands for work, but settled there after working with the Salvation Army. He lives alone.
He attends college for an art course, which has helped him meet new people, but when college closes, things can get a little quiet.
“In the winter it gets dark very early, and it can also be very quiet here, so the sense of isolation is always there,” explains Martin. “The road I live on has hardly any traffic so it is often nice and quiet, but it does mean I can get isolated from people.”
Once a week, Martin meets with Gillian and George, which helps him feel valued and connected to the outside world.
“I put myself into my work so it is nice to be outside of that sometimes, and enjoy my time with Gillian and George,” says Martin.
Martin can also vouch for George’s happy presence.
“[George] is a very good dog, he is very calming. People tend to take to him,” says Martin. “When you’re feeling a bit down, it is just nice to see a happy dog which is happy to see you.”
For your #OneKindThing …
If you have a dog, or know of someone who has a dog, why not introduce them to a friend, family member, colleague or neighbour that’s feeling down?
Going out for a walk with a furry friend and getting some fresh air can work wonders for someone with a low mood, and a dog’s therapeutic effects may help someone more than you know.