In the summer of 2020, Ayla Gelsinger was looking for more ways to get involved in the community when she came across Silver State Service Dogs.
She was already working as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for four children in the foster care system, a Rape Crisis Center volunteer, and a Cupcake Girls direct care intern. But, she hoped to make an even bigger impact in the community where she grew up.
Working with a Silver State Service Dogs (SSSD) was the opportunity she was seeking.
“Throughout my life, I have seen the joy that animals bring others — and I yearned to be a part of the animal-assisted healing process that Silver State Service Dogs offered,” said Gelsinger, a double major in the College of Liberal Arts and Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. “I thought that this would be a perfect way to give back to the community.”
Her work with this organization has led to her selection as the Office of Community Engagement 2021 Student Service Award recipient.
From the start, Gelsinger was extremely interested in the mission of SSSD, an organization that provides psychiatric, trauma, and mobility service dogs to those experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with priority given to veterans and first responders.
She distinctly remembers her first phone call with one of SSSD’s co-founders. They discussed their passions, goals for the organization, and ideas that Gelsinger had for improving it.
“It was clear from the start that alongside SSSD, I would be able to make an impact on the community I care so much about,” Gelsinger said.
Within her first few weeks at SSSD, Gelsinger was offered an internship coordinator position. She consistently checked in on each intern’s progress, made sure everyone had what they needed to succeed, and provided volunteers with consistent support and guidance in their daily work.
During her second semester with SSSD, she focused on getting more interns involved so SSSD could have a bigger impact. She reached out to UNLV’s communications studies department and developed an SSSD internship program with the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. She interviewed new interns and paired students with responsibilities that aligned with the students’ future career goals.
She also focused on other areas she felt needed attention. Gelsinger started a monthly newsletter that enabled SSSD to connect with the community. The newsletter shared information about current projects, spread awareness about PTSD and trauma, highlighted members of the organization, and provided updates about SSSD.
Gelsinger also started an SSSD Instagram account that now has nearly 300 followers and facilitates connections with the community by sharing the importance of service dogs, and by hosting fundraisers and dog food drives for those in need.
Along with reinventing SSSD’s social media presence, she updated its website to enable community connections, as well as promotion of events and volunteer opportunities.
Many veterans who work with SSSD cannot take their service dog out on walks each day. Part of SSSD’s mission is to ensure that a mobility restriction does not stop a veteran from getting a canine companion to assist the veteran with their healing process. Gelsinger had a solution for this, too. She developed and implemented Lab Laps, a volunteer dog-walking program that ensures service dogs-in-training get the experience they need to become skillful service dogs.
Gelsinger’s work with SSSD has impacted other UNLV students by providing them with internship opportunities that will enhance their ability to succeed in higher education and in their careers.
It also has led to the formation of a registered student organization at UNLV that improves the campus community by hosting events designed to enhance student engagement while decreasing the stigma surrounding mental health issues such as PTSD, trauma, suicide, and depression.
SSSD and those served by the organization have benefited greatly from Gelsinger’s work.
“In the three semesters Ayla has been active in our organization, we have made great progress towards our goals, due in no small part to her contributions,” said Teresa Keller, co-founder and director of breeding for Silver State Service Dogs. “She will always be welcome in our organization. Her impact is priceless.”
Not only have her contributions assisted SSSD with its mission achievement and greatly expanded its connections to the community, but her service also has ensured that veterans and first responders benefit from trained service dogs that provide support and companionship.
“My volunteer work at Silver State Service Dogs has given me the ability to do what I am passionate about,” Gelsinger said. “The opportunity to make an impact on such a wonderful and genuine organization has taught me a great deal about my own values. My time at SSSD has driven me to pursue a career in social work so that I can continue improving communities that I care about.”
UNLV’s Office of Community Engagement established four universitywide awards in 2016 to recognize campus individuals for their exceptional community engagement in the areas of service-learning, community-based research, faculty/staff community outreach, and student service.