PharmDawg Volunteers – The Rest of The Story: Johnna Hodges Epitomizes Spirit of Volunteerism

PharmDawg Volunteers – The Rest of The Story
Johnna Hodges Epitomizes Spirit of Volunteerism

“Elephants are highly sensitive and caring with well-developed social behaviors, demonstrating empathy and concern for others within the family group and beyond. They are highly intelligent animals with complex emotions, feelings, compassion, and self-awareness.”  – Samantha Palmer

There’s a good possibility you don’t know Johnna Hodges, the Assistant Director of the International and Biomedical Regulatory Sciences Program at the College. Despite being a PharmDawg for more than 19 years, Johnna works from the UGA Gwinnett Campus in a program that, frankly, doesn’t have the notoriety it deserves on a collegiate, university, state, and national stage. This highly specialized, online certificate and graduate degree program focuses on regulatory sciences for pharmaceuticals and medical products. It has expanded exponentially through the years, and, in large part, it is Johnna’s tenacity and diligence that has spurred this growth.

Beyond her role at the College, Johnna’s passion is, in a word, fascinating. Johnna volunteers with aging elephants at The Elephant Sanctuary (TES) in Hohenwald, Tenn. Her heartwarming story is why the editors are pleased to feature Johnna as the first in a PharmDawg Weekly series, PharmDawg Volunteers – The Rest of The Story. To nominate a fellow faculty, staff, or student for a future story, email Mickey Yongue.  (Many thanks to Deborah Martinez, Graduate Student Affairs Officer in the Office of Student Affairs, for this feature concept.)

A dedicated animal lover, Johnna has been a volunteer with TES for more than 13 years.  The sanctuary’s mission is to “…provide captive elephants with individualized care, the companionship of a herd, and the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe haven dedicated to their well-being and to educate the public of the complex needs of elephants in captivity and the crisis facing elephants in the wild.” Those who do know Johnna understand the comparative of the opening descriptor of the animal for which she is passionate – Johnna is “highly-intelligent,” “sensitive,” and “caring.”

She commented about TES, “When I volunteer, I feel that I am serving multiple stakeholders, from the elephants to the broader animal welfare causes related to conservation, as well as the local community with education and outreach activities. By sharing my experiences and the knowledge that I have gained about elephants, I hope I can raise awareness about elephants in captivity and in the wild, along with conservation efforts.”

TES’s Senior Manager of External Affairs, Todd Montgomery, said of Johnna, “The Elephant Sanctuary is thankful to have volunteers such as Johnna. These individuals donate their time, ideas, and energy to raise public awareness about the needs of the elephants and the work of The Elephant Sanctuary, and they also are handy when it comes to completing work projects during our regular onsite ‘Volunteer Days.’ Johnna has been a volunteer for (and friend to) The Elephant Sanctuary for years now; her commitment and passion are an inspiration.”

Johnna shared her volunteer spirit in a brief Q & A session with PharmDawg Weekly editors.  Read “The Rest of the Story” here.

  1. How did you get involved with elephants?

My motivation to engage with TES stemmed from an overseas journey where I encountered working elephants. Being a lifelong animal lover, I was concerned about their well-being. This concern led me to wonder how I could contribute to the welfare of elephants beyond monetary donations. During my search, I stumbled upon a heartwarming news story about an elephant named Tarra and her friendship with a dog named Bella. Their unique bond piqued my curiosity. These two had a home in rural Tennessee. My first thought was, ‘What are elephants doing in rural Tennessee??’

Eager to learn more, I reached out to TES and discovered what they were about and that they were actively seeking volunteers for a range of activities, both on-site and within other communities. Their mission was not only to care for elephants but also to raise awareness about the challenges faced by elephants in captivity and those in the wild.

During my first volunteer experience, I was impressed by the organization’s dedication, particularly its commitment to these wonderful animals. That initial encounter sealed the deal to connect with TES, and I have been volunteering with them ever since. TES has helped me form a deeper understanding of elephants, their behavior, and the challenges they face, as well as other wildlife issues and concerns.

  1. What do you do in your volunteer capacity with TES?

I volunteer in a few different ways. I am a part of the Eleambassador Program.  Having gone through training, this is a program in which I go to different community events and speak about the Sanctuary, the elephants in their care, and the plight of elephants in captivity and in the wild. I also am involved in the research and creation of browse lists and other helpful tools for elephant caregivers.  In addition, periodically, I travel to TES and engage in whatever hands-on activity needs to be done on the grounds of the Sanctuary, from creating elephant enrichment activities to fence removal, painting, and other necessary tasks.

Elephants residing at the Sanctuary are not accessible to the public; they have retired to this sanctuary. Volunteers do not engage in any direct interactions with the elephants. Our primary role is to provide services that support the Sanctuary in fulfilling its mission.

  1. Why do you think it is important to volunteer – in any capacity?

Volunteering holds great significance in my life. It’s not just about making a positive impact in the community and raising awareness about a given cause; it is also a source of personal growth for me, including new skills acquisition, networking opportunities, and new knowledge. Through volunteering, I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of interesting people and learn skills I might never have acquired otherwise. For instance, I had the opportunity to master the art of braiding heavy-duty fire hoses as enrichment activities for the elephants. One of the tasks involved weaving three donated fire hoses to create spaces that could be filled with hay, watermelon, tires, and various toys for the elephants. This unique experience exemplifies how volunteering offers both personal development and the chance to contribute to meaningful causes in the community.  I encourage volunteering because it provides valuable opportunities for personal and social good.

  1. Why do you encourage your fellow PharmDawgs to volunteer? 

It can take some time to discover the right organization or field that fits your interests or passion, but there are many opportunities in various disciplines for volunteering, some of which you may not have considered.  I would encourage everyone to search for volunteer activities that fit your values and interests.

Johnna Hodges pictured front right in red.

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