Instead of sleeping in on weekends or soaking up as much sleep as she can on school days, 14-year-old Ava Calise wakes up early—around 6 a.m.—to administer morning medication to her foster dogs.
Once that’s done, she moves on to her work physically helping them get to their temporary homes, assisting with everything from their physical transport across the country to helping socialize them to become more adoptable.
Ava dedicates most of her free time outside of school volunteering with three animal rescue groups in order to keep them out of the shelter system. With patience and love, Ava works her magic to help these canines adjust to domestic life by learning their quirks, which makes her a frequent “go to” foster mom for frightened dogs that need rehabilitation.
“Ava has a very special way with animals. She seems to always get through to the sickest and most frightened of the hundreds of dogs we foster each year,” says her mother, Jennifer.
Whereas most teenagers are concerned with social media and other distractions, Ava mostly uses technology to personally seek out homes for dogs in need of adoption by trying to match them to the perfect forever homes. When Ava does spend time on Facebook, it’s usually in service of saving lives.
“Ava is definitely not your average teenager addicted to social media and selfies. Trading pictures of dogs and their descriptions is more her style,” says Kim Crawford, Vice President and Medical Director of Friends with Four Paws.
Currently, she’s spending her evenings building a website for a new animal rescue that desperately needs one, but can not afford to pay a professional.
“Even if she’s tired from staying up late loading dogs onto Adopt-a-Pet, she’ll get dressed and pack the car to help transport dogs from the airport to their foster homes early in the morning,” Jennifer says.
One of her most recent pick-ups was a dog rescued from a puppy mill who never even touched grass before—at least, not until Ava came along. Constance Mensink, Co-Founder of Pupstarz Rescue, says that unlike most kids who just want to pet and cuddle dogs, Ava spends countless hours working with them emotionally and physically training them to be the best dog they can be.
“She and her family help these dogs get out of the shelter environment and into a loving home where they learn how to integrate into a house and family. Because of them, these dogs become adoptable much more quickly,” Mensink says.
Whether or not thousands of unwanted dogs in Oklahoma can find new beginnings in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut all depends on how many volunteers can help with transporting and fostering the pups.
“It's a tough [volunteer] job, and can be very emotionally draining, and Ava is there for it all. Three out of every four Saturdays a month, she’s helping check-in the fosters and adopters while handling the bags packed for each pup on the other side,” Crawford says. “This girl is there for those dogs, start to finish.”
In fact, she continues, Friends With Four Paws is lucky enough to have two great teen volunteers, and while they are the best of friends, they have never met in person. Maddie and Ava trade info about the dogs to help them find the perfect match. One takes care of the dogs before transport, and the other after.
“I personally would be lost without Ava and Maddie. There is no doubt in my mind I'd need four adult volunteers to take the place of those two girls,” Crawford says.
As fate would have it, during one recent transport, Ava fell in love.
“She said that she would foster him, but didn't list him for adoption because she wanted to adopt him herself! Her mom said he was ‘dognapped,’ but I think it was just meant to be,” Crawford says. “She filled out the application, and will be paying his adoption fee in her hard earned cash.”
So where is Ava in this story? Well, it’s actually a surprise to let her know that we see her, we admire her, and we are humbled by her. Here’s to you, young lady.
Helaina Hovitz is an editor, writer, content strategist and author of the memoir After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Newsweek, Glamour, Teen Vogue, SELF, Forbes, Upworthy, Reader’s Digest, SELF, Women’s Health, Bustle, Upworthy, VICE, HEALTH, and many others. Read more at her website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.