Tisbury eighth-grader follows her passion, dogs

Olivia at home with Miles, her Australian shepherd. — Photo by Gil Jacobs

Many of us get inspired upon learning about an organization with a mission we are passionate about, but how many actually follow up with anything more than a check?

Olivia Jacobs, a 13-year-old Tisbury resident, is an exception. After watching the National Geographic series Dogtown on TV, Olivia was so impressed with the show’s subject, the Best Friends Animal Society, that, after reading “every word on their website,” she decided to volunteer at the organization’s sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.

The largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the U.S., the 3,000-acre preserve is located in the heart of the picturesque area of the southwest that includes the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park. To get there, Olivia’s parents stipulated that she had to raise her portion of the travel costs herself. Her mother would pay for her own airfare and half of the other expenses.

That was no obstacle for the industrious eight-grader who has operated her own dog-grooming and walking business for three years. Using that business as a fundraising platform, Olivia began her efforts in early June. By mid-July, she had managed not only to pay for her trip to Utah, but she was also able to make a generous donation to the Best Friends Society.

Olivia’s parents never doubted that she would be able to follow through on her mission. “We’ve always known that Olivia is a focused girl,” her mother, Wendy Jacobs, said. “When she wants something, she sets a path to get it. She’s a dedicated and caring kid, and it doesn’t surprise us at all that her focus is on helping needy animals.”

Not only does Olivia maintain her own business, she also participates in basketball and volleyball, is starring in the upcoming Tisbury School play, and she just started a weekend job as a mentor at My Pet’s Vet. None of these extracurriculars have interfered with Olivia’s academic pursuits either. She has won the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools’ annual Spelling Bee for the last two years and competed twice in the Scripps National Spelling Bee In Washington D.C.

For her fundraising efforts, Olivia printed up professional looking flyers explaining the mission of the Best Friends Society and her mission. The flyer encouraged people to support her cause by scheduling a dog-grooming session. When she received contributions from non-clients, she told them that any straightforward donations would be turned over to the sanctuary. She was determined to earn her way. In just six weeks Olivia was able to raise $1,400, double the amount she needed.

Olivia and her mom left for Utah in late July. They spent a week in a cottage close to the huge sanctuary and spent the first two days working in the areas that house the cats and pot-bellied pigs before settling in at DogTown, home to hundreds of dogs including a number of those rescued from NFL player Michael Vick’s dog-fighting operation. Olivia notes that there were a number of volunteers there. “It was a real family thing,” she said.

The sanctuary is home to over 1,500 animals including horses, turtles, birds, rabbits, and other small pets — and some wild animals. Many of the domestic animals are available for adoption, but many more are either too old, sick, or damaged to make suitable pets. The sanctuary rescued most of the unclaimed pets stranded after Hurricane Katrina, and they continually take in hundreds of cats and dogs rescued from pet hoarders.

While Olivia loves all animals, she is very much a dog person, so she was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the sanctuary’s dogs. In addition to feeding, watering, and walking them, she also helped to socialize the animals, many of whom suffer from emotional damage due to neglect or abuse. “The dogs were so hurt and so broken,” Olivia said.

One dog in particular caught Olivia’s attention, and they formed a bond. “He was one of the shy dogs,” she said of Braxon, who had been abused. “I fell in love with the shy dogs. After you played with him and petted him for a while he came out of his shell.” The Jacobs women were able to take Braxon and another dog back to their cottage for overnight visits. Olivia was happy to hear upon her return that Braxon had found a home.

It wasn’t until the end of the her stay that Olivia presented the sanctuary with a check for $700 to be used towards supplies for the dogs in her favorite section of Dogtown. “The whole week we didn’t tell them that I was going to donate anything,” she said. “They treated us just like regular volunteers. The last day we just walked in and said we’re going to donate $700. What’s your wish list? They were all so happy, they were crying.”

Olivia is determined to return to the sanctuary and this time she hopes to bring along her father, Gil, and her 17-year-old sister, Dana. She wants to share her life-changing experience with her family. “The trip out to Best Friends in Utah was so great, especially seeing how dedicated the caregivers are to each and every animal there. I just learned so much,” she said. “It’s not just about getting an animal adopted, because many never do get adopted, it’s about giving them the absolute best life possible even if that means staying at the sanctuary.”

Olivia has already embarked on her next mission. She discovered online that Tufts University has a career exploration program for aspiring veterinarians and she is currently focused on the application process. Only a few of many applicants are accepted each year.

As with other challenges, Olivia approaches the situation with a well-thought-out plan and a mature and professional attitude. She is reading up as much as possible and has asked for references from a teacher and her mentor.

“She’s a 45-year-old woman in a 13-year-old body,” her mother said.