Bin Johnston is the founder of Our Special Friends, a Suffolk-based animal companionship charity supported by 100 volunteers. On National Pet Day, the Animal Companionship Practitioner explains how it all came about
My name is Bin (short for Belinda) Johnston and I run a Suffolk animal companionship charity, Our Special Friends. I am the lead animal companionship practitioner which is a new role we have created, and we have a team of colleagues supporting volunteers within our local community. I am trained as a vet and we promote, preserve, and provide the power of animal companionship.
Our Special Friends started 11 years ago from a belief that there were animal loving people in our communities who needed support at difficult times; but who were not at vet clinics or at rehoming centres. I had been training veterinary colleagues and rehoming centre staff on the need to support pet owners before, during and after loss either from euthanasia or relinquishment. I realised there were many people hidden away, faced with very difficult decisions and distressing situations. From my own experience, I appreciate how important animal companionship is and that, at times, support is needed. As I found more people needing help, I encouraged volunteers to help me. In 2014 we became a registered charity and to date we have five full-time colleagues in our office, three part-time colleagues and 100volunteers providing a range of support services.
We believe in the power of animal companionship and the importance of providing holistic non-judgemental support in difficult times. We are creating a compassionate communityand our vision is a world in which the power of animal companionship is recognised andintegrated into effective care and support plans for people and animals. We want everyoneto have an effective network of support and care plans for difficult times.
The need for support is ever increasing but we have also identified people who have fallen into a gap. The need for our support has been increasing as more people find out that we want to help, and they become aware of our community outreach approach.
People can telephone our answering service or complete an online form on our website. There is a ‘Get Help’ page and a general contact form. We currently cover West Suffolk and surrounding areas for volunteer-delivered support; but our two practitioners can give advice and support that is not restricted by geography.
There are many different volunteer opportunities that can be found on our ‘Give Help’ page of our website. For example, volunteers who would like contact with animals can provide dog walking, accompanied-dog walking and fostering (to reunite) or if they have their own friendly dog, they can visit local people in their homes on a regular basis (to help reduce loneliness and brighten people’s lives). We always welcome people doing fundraising events and being ambassadors. We welcome volunteers local to West Suffolk as we can help more people and animals in need.
If the relationship is a good match, there are many proven benefits of animal companionship, including being very positive for our health and wellbeing. The non-judgemental, unconditional love is particularly important for people living on their own. You can enjoy solitude with animals without feeling lonely. They are another ‘heartbeat in the home’. Depending on the pet, the benefits can range from getting you out and about, to providing you with a feeling of safety and security. There are too many benefits to mention here. There are also challenges that can come from looking after pets and that is why we provide a range of support.
I have been very lucky to have animals in my life since an early age. I feel comfortable with animals and value their presence. I currently have two dogs and two cats, and I am passionate about feeding birds in our garden.
We want to help more people and animals by sharing our knowledge and encouraging others to ‘do what we do’. This is only possible with donations, and we need more funding to create sustainability. This will mean that we can continue to meet the need for our support and it will enable us to do more.
Featured image of Bin Johnston with Rolo (2008-2022). Rolo inspired the dog visiting programme