For many years, Joni Bonilla professionally trained and cared for dogs, but her perspective on the perfect match between a dog and its owner changed one day when her veteran friend, described the challenges of finding a pet following the unexpected loss of his beloved family dog.
Joni’s friend, a disabled veteran who was suffering from PTSD, was deeply affected by the presence of their family dog who became a reminder that he was never alone. Following the loss, Joni’s friend was desperate to find a new companion but found that trained dogs for veterans were often expensive and had excessive waitlists.
Deciding that not one more veteran should have to wait for the benefits of a trained dog, Joni founded Operation At Ease. Working with shelters and rescues nationwide, OAE pairs unwanted dogs with disabled veterans free of charge. All dogs are fully vetted prior to placement at no cost to the veteran, and veterans partake in free, guided training programs to learn the skills needed for the dog to pass the Public Access test, allowing owners to bring their dog anywhere they go in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
By rehabilitating dogs from shelters to serve as companions for veterans, Joni is making a difference in her community one pet at a time, and is today’s Daily Point of Light award honoree. Points of Light spoke to Joni to learn more about her work with OAE.
What inspires you to volunteer?
You can’t tell someone, “Thank you for fighting for my freedom, but sit tight for 6 years while we have millions of dogs dying in shelters.” There’s just no need for it. We send these young men and women into combat, they suffer trauma, then they come home and they need our support. Over 20 veterans commit suicide each day. I just decided to put veterans and dogs-in-need together and turn it into something positive.
Describe your volunteer role with Operation At Ease.
I do all of our event planning, fundraising, orientations, training, screening and more. We provide the venue to the veterans to train their dogs, which means we are getting them out of the house every day for a purpose. When training is hard, they work through it just like they work through the successes. Training helps them with their trust issues; they have to trust their dog and to trust us. The veterans work collaboratively through training. Our work is just as much a benefit to the mental health of the veterans as it is a process to adopt a dog.
If a book was being written about your life, what would the title be?
(Laughs) I don’t know. There are so many layers to my life. A book has a beginning and an end. Tell someone to blog about me. A book ends, I’m not ending.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
It’s far exceeded anything I ever expected. Every time I show up for training, it’s just as rewarding as the last time. You’re meeting the bravest people in our country, these are men and women who had a calling to serve. PTSD is anxiety and depression; they’re not afraid of life, they just truly don’t know how to deal with life post-combat. We’ve taken some dogs from shelters, and with training they are able to help the veteran and provide companionship.
What’s an upcoming event you are excited about?
Our Diamonds and Dogs fundraising event will be in November. Please check our Facebook page for more information.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
My entire life has changed. I took so many things for granted before OAE. I had cancer when I was 15years old, so I always felt like I appreciated my life. However, seeing what these vets go through, my entire outlook has changed. I truly consider it a win when their feet hit the ground in the morning.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
We’re all here together. We have to take care of each other. Anything that anybody can do is a big deal. We’re all connected in this world, so whatever your niche is, go do it. If you can buy one pair of socks for one homeless person for a shelter, you’ve changed that person’s life.
What’s your life motto?
I have 175 of them. It just depends on the day (laughs). You just have to wake up and do the best you can.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Joni Bonilla? Visit All For Good for local volunteer opportunities.
Post written by Marlena Militana.