Woman who took animal shelter kill rate from 100% to 0% wins $35,000 'Unsung Hero' award

When Kayla Denney took over the animal shelter in Taft, Texas five months ago, it was—in her words—a "hot mess." The rudimentary building had no electricity, a lone hose for cleaning out kennels, and very limited supplies for taking care of the animals. What they did have was "blue juice"—the chemical injection used to euthanize animals. Every Wednesday was "kill day"—the sad solution to the problem of animals with nowhere to go and no one to care for them properly.

"The animals looked sad. The building looked sad," city manager, Denise Hitt said in a video. "So I decided we were going to make a change." She and Taft police chief John Cornish met with Kayla Denney, and came up with a plan to transform the facility into a no-kill shelter.


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Denney, who has dedicated her life to saving animals, initiated a miraculous turnaround for the dogs and cats of Taft, a town of about 3,000 people. She immediately connected with anyone she knew who fostered or rescued animals. She organized donation drives to get supplies and started a Facebook page to spread the word about animals needing homes. Now, she organizes a team of volunteers, and even makes house calls to check in on folks who have taken in dogs or cats to see if they need anything.

Her hard work has paid off quickly. Since she came on five months ago, no animals at the shelter have been euthanized.

"As of November 1st, we have saved 565 dogs and cats out of Taft," Denney told KZTV News.

Unbeknownst to her, someone nominated Denney for a Petco Foundation Unsung Heroes Award. She was one of five finalists out of thousands of nominees who were awarded $10,000 each in February. And on November 14, she will be awarded the top prize, which comes with additional $25,000, at the Petco Foundation Lifesaving Impact Awards.

Denney says the money will help improve conditions at the shelter for the animals she serves.

"It's an older shelter and its run down," Denney told KZTV. "We got lights thanks to a donor who put in electricity for us, but I want indoor outdoor kennels with a guillotine in between so when it's raining we can put them inside. We want an area where they can have meet and greet out in the field and somewhere they can have grass time rather than just cement time."

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"Every dog deserves a chance, whether it's in my shelter or not," she says.

Watch the inspiring story of how Denney turned Taft's animals shelter around here:

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.