Grace Hamlin grew up in an orphanage in Costa Rica. Even as a child, she had a heart for helping others and a love for animals. “I saw that children had a need for love, and that dogs had a need for love,” she recalls, “and I thought there should be some way for those two to come together to help each other.”
While living in Atlanta, Grace realized that gangs were “buying” elementary students for as little as $1. They would pay these children to rob houses or break into cars, knowing that such small children wouldn’t be sent to jail. One day, shortly after losing her job due to an injury, Grace witnessed a gang making kids fight each other. She broke it up, and told the smallest kids to go home. One child said that he couldn’t; he was locked out.
“That’s when I realized that there was a big problem in my neighborhood,” she says. There wasn’t anything for kids to do, or anywhere for them to go. Oftentimes, their parents locked them out of their houses while they worked, forcing kids as young as 4 years old to be protected by their older siblings on the streets.
Because of her injury, Grace was struggling to properly care for her dogs, so she invited some of these kids into her home if they were good with animals. That’s when she saw the potential for therapy. Her childhood dream of being able to help animals while teaching children compassion, ethics, hard work, and integrity had now become a reality, and W-Underdogs was born. It was December, 2012.
The W-Underdogs mission is to lift up disadvantaged children by having them help rescue animals. Grace teaches kids to manage, care for, and train dogs and cats and vet them as needed. Grace expects the kids to respect adults and each other as well as the animals. “They have to earn the privilege of being in the program. We expect the kids to show basic kindness to other people and animals for starters,” she explains.
Once in the program, kids are ranked much like the Boy or Girl Scouts program, with different levels offering more opportunities. The ranking system measures youth growth in areas of respect and responsibility, and provides a standard for recognition of their achievements. The program also requires parental involvement in the child’s growth through the program. The overall goal of the W-Underdogs is to address the challenges that disadvantaged kids face and provide them with the skills and sense of accomplishment to help overcome these issues, resulting in a better community environment.
In addition to helping children, Grace and the W-Underdogs help animals in need. Whether these animals are surrendered to Grace (instead of a shelter) or they’re strays rescued from the streets, the kids are responsible for their care and training. Children at the lowest ranking clean up after the animals, learning responsibility, discipline, and compassion. They eventually work their way up to earn “field trips” where they learn accountability and job skills, and help with animal rescues. In learning to care for the animals, the kids learn to care for themselves and have compassion for others. They learn teamwork and how to manage the expectations of others.
Grace also teaches the kids to use materials salvaged from the neighborhood or their own backyards to make shelters for dogs and cats who don’t have any. Many people in her neighborhood own dogs, but tie them up in the backyard and don’t provide a doghouse for them to get out of the hot summer sun or the cold winter nights. “A lot of the people where I live don’t know about basic dog care. They don’t think that what they’re doing is wrong,” she explains. The W-Underdogs both build and donate shelters for these animals, teaching the owners basic pet care and the importance of shelter, clean water, and proper food.
When new animals are brought into Grace’s program, the kids have full hands-on training, rehabilitating the dogs from their neglected, abused situations into loving, manageable pets. When these dogs and cats are ready for adoption, the kids take them to rescue events to help get them adoptive families. Saving the animals, in effect, rescues the kids.
Grace hears positive feedback from parents and teachers of kids in the W-Underdogs program. The kids’ self esteem is high, their grades are better, and their whole attitudes have changed. These kids are now looking at futures that could include a college education, when before their best hope was joining a gang.
Grace teaches the kids job skills and likes them to be their own advocate by the time they’re in high school. Under Grace’s supervision, kids can earn money doing landscaping, small engine repair, dog walking, or poop scooping. “No job is too small. We’ll take anything we can get,” she says.
The money from these jobs goes into a fund to help pay for animal care and supplies. Older students can bid larger jobs, and their money goes into a personal account set up by the W-Underdogs program to go toward a college education someday. The hardworking and responsible W-Underdogs are always looking for jobs to help fund the program and keep them busy after school. Their work is guaranteed to be as professional as the competition at a more reasonable price, and any work done by the W-Underdogs is a tax deduction.
The W-Underdogs is a nonprofit organization currently based out of Grace’s home. Grace is looking for a facility that will allow her and the kids to house the dogs and cats in their care as well as be a hangout for the kids after school, so that the group will not be so limited in the number of animals and kids that they help. “Right now we meet in my house, and I’m busting at the seams. I can’t take in any more kids or dogs at this point.” The program is just starting its third year, but it already has a vision of seeing W-Underdogs in many cities across America, giving kids hope and animals new life.
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About the author: Karen Dibert is a wife, mom, and dog lover living in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. She has five kids, two French Bulldogs, and a flock of useless chickens. Karen authors a pet column for her local newspaper, advocates for her son with Down syndrome, manages Louie the French Dog’s Instagram account, compulsively photographs everything, and lives in the sewing room, filling orders for her Etsy shops, The French Dog, and The French Dog Home. A snapshot of her life can be seen on Facebook.