Alan Koch and canine companion Maggie have been volunteering for more than nine years at Our House of Portland where they work with acute-care HIV residents. This month, Portland Monthly magazine named Alan, along with his companion, “Extraordinary Volunteer” in Portland in its annual Light a Fire awards.
Each Monday, when this therapy team visits residents, Maggie can count on getting her chest scratched; as Alan leans into the morning’s conversation with a resident, Maggie savors the touch. Alan listens deeply.
At some point in their shift, Maggie will encourage a resident to take a walk – dancing on her hind legs as her signal to “get moving.” And then there are times when Maggie’s chief job is to patiently observe as Alan loses yet again to a domino player much sharper than he.
Last year, after some residents expressed interest in a meditation group, Alan started one at Our House. Alan begins the group with a reading, and then they sit in silence. Maggie learned long ago what to do in meditation, tucking in next to Alan or next to a resident in her own “centering place.” And when the bell closes the silence, Alan says, “the first words from the group present themselves softly, much like the footsteps when we entered the room.”
Many times through the years, Maggie and Alan have sat with residents at the end of life. “We did nothing extraordinary,” Alan said. “Maggie curled up on the bed. I may have held the patient’s hand. We talked, but just as often we shared a silence.” These were not easy spaces, according to Alan, but “where we wanted to be to honor some courageous people we had known all too briefly.”
Over the years Alan and Maggie have volunteered in additional settings, such as final-exam stress reduction at Portland-area universities and crisis response with other therapy animal teams following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College.