It takes a very specific set of skills to be a social worker, and Renie Rule did not have them.
"When I decided not to be a missionary, I got my degree in what I thought was the next closest thing, but quickly realized I was probably one of the worst social workers who ever graduated."
Rule laughs with relief as she remembers the professors who took her aside and broke the news that, despite graduating top of her class, she should consider alternative career paths thanks in large part to her too-high empathy levels.
"Thank God for those honest souls," she chuckles, "because that means I didn't have time to ruin lives in the few months of my social work career."
A handful of decades and a long resume flooded with nonprofit work later, Rule happily reports she's gotten much better at setting emotional and professional boundaries, but that doesn't stop her from beaming with excitement as she talks about the organizations whose work she's woven into her own life.
Staying true to her love of social work, Rule instead learned the ropes of development and administration in the nonprofit world. She's volunteered, fundraised or served on the board of some of the area's most well-known groups, including Wildwood Park for the Arts, Youth Home, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Centers for Youth and Families and many more.
"I'm just fascinated with nonprofits, how they work, how they stay on mission, how they get things done," Rule says. "Even if I'm looking at it from afar, I still want to dig into it and find out how it ticks.
"My kids laugh because every time I get involved with a nonprofit I say, 'Oh, this is my favorite one.' They tell me I can't say that every time, but it's always true."
Though she doesn't deny her well-placed enthusiasm throughout the years, Rule is quick to mention that her current dual roles as vice president of development for Arkansas Hospice Inc. and executive director of the Arkansas Hospice Foundation are, without a doubt, where she is meant to be.
Rule's introduction to Arkansas Hospice was a personal one. When her mother was placed in hospice care, Rule plunged into a world she knew little about, but a world that would change the trajectory of her life in more than a few ways.
"Before, I didn't really know what hospices did, so I was my mom's major caregiver," Rule says. "But when she became hospice appropriate, I realized that when you let them into your life with your patient, you get be a daughter again. They pick up those pieces of being a caregiver, and that real gift is allowing the family members to go back and be there for the patient as loved ones."
Throughout her mother's hospice care, Rule served as the senior development director of the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute before becoming the executive director of development for the College of Medicine. But when her time at UAMS came to an end, Rule's trademark curiosity kept pointing her toward Arkansas Hospice and the one thing she learned she couldn't shake: hospice care is widely underutilized.
"I got interested because of personal reasons, but then became fascinated with why people aren't using hospice," says Rule, who joined Arkansas Hospice in spring of 2017. "It can make a huge difference in end-of-life care for the patient and for what the family has to care for. I know it sounds strange to say I love this line of work, but I really do. It's endlessly meaningful to me."
The most common misconception they see, according to Rule, is that caregivers often believe they should put off hospice care until the last few weeks of a loved one's life. A patient can be considered hospice appropriate when symptoms indicate a possible six-month window before death. It's that window of time, she says, that makes all the difference.
"If a person is dying and they've decided that's what they want to do, the heartache it can save by not going in and out of emergency rooms, not to mention the financial stress, is astronomical," Rule says. "To be well taken care of, to be home, to be comfortable, to be out of pain and to be able to have their end-of-life wishes come true rather than the chaos of a hospital, more than anything it helps lift the tremendous burden of stress put on a family and a patient."
Through her work with the nonprofit's foundation, Rule's team is able to add a little brightness to their patients' final days. They've hosted birthday parties for kids who won't see another, graduations for students who will never walk the stage, one last trip to the pool for a retired swimming coach.
It's a world that isn't for the faint of heart, but one that perhaps strengthens it in the process.
"Our boots on the ground in patient care, those people have a real gift that I so admire. It takes a certain kind of energy to work in that environment, and it's as much my responsibility to take care of my team as it is for them to take care of their people," Rule says. "But at the end of the day our job is to bring quality of life to the end of life for our patients and their families, and that's such a humbling and rewarding thing to do."
Those who know Rule, however, know her zeal for reaching those society has forgotten began long ago. In August of 1994, Arkansas was set to perform the first triple execution in the country since 1962, an act that lit a fire in Rule, a firm opponent of capital punishment. After reading that one of the men on death row would not receive the banana bread he requested for his final meal because of kitchen limitations, Rule baked a loaf of banana bread herself and set out to the Tucker Maximum Security Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) in Jefferson County.
Rule admits it was a naive move on her part, but she nonetheless managed to get the bread to the inmate, who in turn called her that evening to thank her before his execution the following day. As a result of that phone call, Rule then spent the next 15 years building a chapel in Tucker Max, developing relationships within the ADC and looking for new ways to help wherever she could.
She knew they had their answer when news swept the country that the Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary had successfully rehabilitated approximately 50 of the once-aggressive dogs rescued from Atlanta Falcon Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring scandal. After studying a similar program in Missouri, the ADC launched its Paws in Prison program in 2011.
The concept is simple — inmates rehabilitating shelter dogs — but the ripple effects, and even direct results, reach much further. Through ADC partnerships with rescue organizations, dogs will often enter the program mere days before euthanasia. The dogs then learn basic obedience skills and proper socialization from select inmate trainers before being adopted into new families.
"And they're rehabilitating the inmates just as much in return. When we got our first dogs, the inmates would yell at them to sit down, but now you see these big guys down on the floor loving on these animals," Rule says, adding that an inmate's good behavior is required to maintain training privileges.
According to the ADC, since the implementation of Paws in Prison, the program has positively impacted daily interactions between inmates and employees, while providing marketable skills to help inmates re-enter society in the future. To date, Paws in Prison has rehabilitated more than 1,200 dogs through programs in nine prisons across the state, including women's facilities.
"I don't think any of us could have really predicted how much it would impact these inmates," Rule says. "Maybe we expected that we'd kind of factory out some really good pets for families, it would give inmates something to do and the dogs would be saved, but no, I don't think we ever really grasped that it would provide this kind of healing.
"I'm not saying it's the end-all, be-all by any means, but man, I could tell some stories. It can open up a person's heart where we haven't found a way to do it otherwise."
On Rule's desk sits a small, silver bar inscribed with a question that no doubt feeds her propensity toward fascination and curiosity. It reads: What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?
As her days fill up with Arkansas Hospice meetings, as Paws in Prison updates cross her desk and as her phone inevitably rings with news of another nonprofit that needs her expertise, Rule still finds moments to reflect on that inscription, on what keeps her going.
From prayerful consideration of each step to unflinching time requirements, she knows good things grow from a certain recipe of stubbornness, tenacity and the invaluable energy cultivated by supportive friends and teammates.
"I get to experience that every day," Rule says with a smile. "For the longest time I was convinced that if you walked into doing something full time, it would lose its magic. It hasn't to date, and I hope I'm here doing these things for a long, long time."