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This woman doesn't want to rescue dogs. She wants to make sure their owners never give them away.

The way we think about animal rescue might be completely backward.

This woman doesn't want to rescue dogs. She wants to make sure their owners never give them away.

Six years ago, Kelsey Westbrook watched someone throw a pit bull puppy off a bridge.

Saving Sunny co-founder Kelsey Westbrook. Photo by Jessica Amburgey.


For the next several minutes, she looked on helplessly as the stunned dog paddled circles in the river below, struggling to save herself. Eventually, the fire department arrived and pulled the dog to safely. Westbrook was so determined to take in the dog, it almost cost her the apartment she was living in at the time.

Yet Westbrook has no patience for the idea that people who give up their pets are heartless or cruel or "bad people."

"We think 'Oh, what a jerk. How can people just dump their family members at a shelter? This is awful,'" she told Upworthy. "Once I started doing [animal rescue] work in this community, that's like nails on a chalkboard to me now."

"This community" is Portland, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Louisville, Kentucky, where Westbrook and her team operate Community Dog Resource Center. Once a month, the CDRC sets up shop in the Portland Community Center to distribute pet food, offer free spay and neuter services, and schedule check-in appointments with pet owners in the area.

The CDRC's mission is simple: to prevent beloved pets from becoming homeless in the first place.

“The homes that we go into, people love their pets so much, just like their human children."

A West Louisville resident takes advantage of CDRC's free spay and neuter services. Photo by Jessica Amburgey.

After the incident on the bridge, Westbrook and her team founded Saving Sunny, a pit bull rescue organization that at first only took in animals from local kill shelters. They soon realized, however, they were missing a big piece of the puzzle: Most of the time, people who leave their dogs at shelters really, really don't want to give them up in the first place.

"We all go through rough patches financially," Westbrook explained. "... And sometimes people can be struggling to put food on their table for their human children, much less their dog. So sometimes they just have to come to terms with the fact that they can't afford to feed their dog, and they end up giving their dog to a shelter."

"These are loving pet owners that really care about their pet, that have to make these tough decisions," she said.

This is certainly true in West Louisville, where, according to Westbrook's organization, there is only one vet clinic in a 40-block radius and thousands of residents who don't own cars. By providing free spay and neuter surgeries, in-home behavior consultations, and veterinary services, the CDRC hopes to help alleviate much the financial and logistical burden on residents who may be stretching themselves thin trying to care for a dog.

“We've had people in tears saying, 'Oh my gosh, thank you so much, now I can keep my pet,'" Westbrook said.

“It's not true that the level of economic status you have, the greater it is, the better home it is for a dog."

The line at CDRC on a Saturday morning. Photo by Jessica Amburgey.

In order to meet her clients on their terms, Westbrook first had to recognize that any home has the potential to be a good one for a pet. That meant checking her assumptions at the door.

“I've gone into homes that don't necessarily have proper furniture, or there are fleas everywhere," Westbrook said. "Dogs aren't thinking about it that way because they're getting food, getting love, and they have shelter."

No matter what your means are, the decision to take in a dog, or any pet, is a pretty standard side-effect of having a big heart. Like one CDRC client who, despite suffering from cancer and raising her three elementary school-age grandchildren, rescued a stray chihuahua because she was so heartbroken seeing it out on the street every day. Or the many local residents who adopt puppies from overwhelmed neighbors whose dogs have a litter.

“There have been homes that I've gone into and looked around and thought, 'You know, they really need the money from these puppies,'" Westbrook observed. "That's when your whole experience changes. When you realize that they were breeding their dog to survive — to feed their human children."

Making sure the CDRC's services reach the people who need them most has meant working hard to gain community confidence, which Westbrook and her team continue to do every day.

“This morning I picked up eight pit bulls from one woman's house to be spayed or neutered," she said. "It literally took me talking on the phone with her and going to her house in person twice, talking on the phone at least five times, for her to believe that I was not the dog pound. That I wasn't going to take her dogs and not bring them back. You just have to establish trust because a lot of time they've been burned by authorities in the past."

“Establish trust. Build relationships, go in judgment-free, and you can actually end up meeting some really amazing people."

West Louisville resident Marchelle with Poppie, the chihuahua she rescued. Photo by Jessica Amburgey.

The CDRC is still a small operation. It can't prevent every West Louisville pet from becoming homeless. It can't be residents' only source of dog food, flea and tick medication, and vet care.

What it can do is provide an invaluable service: help without judgment.

“We really operate in a judgment-free zone," Westbrook explained. "If people aren't ready to get their pet spayed or neutered, that's OK. We'll ask you again next month. We're going to tell you all about the benefits, and we're going to tell you how much it's going to help your dog health-wise and how much it's going to help your community and how much money it's going to save you in the long run. Yes, we're going to tell you all those things, but if you're not ready yet, that's OK. We're not going to tell you to leave either."

The hard work and acceptance seems to have paid off. To date, according to Westbrook, the CDRC has assisted over 2,000 dog owners with free services and spayed and neutered over 160 pets.

Animal surrenders in the Portland area are down 13% since the CDRC opened its doors in 2014.

The organization still has bigger goals it would like to meet, and it remains to be seen whether its model can be duplicated elsewhere. But for the moment, its remarkable success comes down to its guiding philosophy:

“No matter where you come from, what you look like, yes, we will help you and your pet."

CDRC board member, Tiffany Hardesty (left), with West Louisville resident Brittany Case and her dogs, Layla and Moses. Photo by Jessica Amburgey.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

This article originally appeared on 12.02.19


Just imagine being an 11-year-old boy who's been shuffled through the foster care system. No forever home. No forever family. No idea where you'll be living or who will take care of you in the near future.

Then, a loving couple takes you under their care and chooses to love you forever.

What could one be more thankful for?

That's why when a fifth grader at Deerfield Elementary School in Cedar Hills, Utah was asked by his substitute teacher what he's thankful for this Thanksgiving, he said finally being adopted by his two dads.

via OD Action / Twitter

To the child's shock, the teacher replied, "that's nothing to be thankful for," and then went on a rant in front of 30 students saying that "two men living together is a sin" and "homosexuality is wrong."

While the boy sat there embarrassed, three girls in the class stood up for him by walking out of the room to tell the principal. Shortly after, the substitute was then escorted out of the building.

While on her way out she scolded the boy, saying it was his fault she was removed.

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One of the boy's parents-to-be is Louis van Amstel, is a former dancer on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars." "It's absolutely ridiculous and horrible what she did," he told The Salt Lake Tribune. "We were livid. It's 2019 and this is a public school."

The boy told his parents-to-be he didn't speak up in the classroom because their final adoption hearing is December 19 and he didn't want to do anything that would interfere.

He had already been through two failed adoptions and didn't want it to happen again.

via Loren Javier / Flickr

A spokesperson for the Alpine School District didn't go into detail about the situation but praised the students who spoke out.

"Fellow students saw a need, and they were able to offer support," David Stephenson said. "It's awesome what happened as far as those girls coming forward."

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He also said that "appropriate action has been taken" with the substitute teacher.

"We are concerned about any reports of inappropriate behavior and take these matters very seriously," Kelly Services, the school the contracts out substitute teachers for the district, said in a statement. "We conduct business based on the highest standards of integrity, quality, and professional excellence. We're looking into this situation."

After the incident made the news, the soon-to-be adoptive parents' home was covered in paper hearts that said, "We love you" and "We support you."

Religion is supposed to make us better people.

But what have here is clearly a situation where a woman's judgement about what is good and right was clouded by bigoted dogma. She was more bothered by the idea of two men loving each other than the act of pure love they committed when choosing to adopt a child.