Alan Koch’s name is on this award, because our Light a Fire honors usually go to humans. But he shares it with Maggie, his canine volunteer partner at Our House, a three-decade-old organization providing integrated health care and housing services to people living with HIV/AIDS.
Maggie, 13, is “theoretically half poodle and half shih tzu,” Koch says. “She sat with my mother for three days before she died,” he remembers, “only getting off the bed to go to the bathroom or to eat.”
Koch, now 71 and retired from Salem’s Chemeketa Community College, recognized that Maggie was more than a mere comforting presence; she had a real ability to connect with people. After puppy school at PetSmart, and then therapy-dog training with Pet Partners, the pair started paying weekly visits to Our House, where Koch had volunteered as a cook for 11 years starting in the ’90s. He mainly prepped comfort food for residents who, at that time, were often in their final days. “A lot of chicken and gravy,” Koch remembers. “Fettuccine alfredo was one of my specialties.” Medical advances have dramatically changed expectations for people with HIV; he notes that the food at Our House is “a lot healthier now.”
Every Monday, Koch and Maggie head down together to Our House (a renovated former nursing home in Southeast Portland), her leather leash tucked into his pocket. They might encourage a resident who doesn’t go out much to help take her for a walk. Sometimes they just sit and let her snuggle, or they play a game—well, Koch plays. Maggie, he says, “is not that great at dominoes.”
The Good Works of Maggie
During finals week at Portland State, Lewis & Clark, or the University of Portland, Maggie hangs with students on study break: “You can just see them relax,” Koch says.
Maggie and Koch made appearances on campus when classes resumed at Roseburg’s Umpqua Community College after the mass shooting in October 2015.
Last fall, Koch started Monday-morning meditation sessions for Our House residents, which he calls an open space to speak from the heart. “I hope in that time the residents can see themselves as not the sum total of their health issues.” What does a dog do? “She meditates,” says Koch, who then clarifies: “If you’re a dog, meditation means taking a nap.”
Lettuce is her favorite treat.