James Mathis was kicked out of school for fighting. The preteen seemed destined for the same bleak fate as the older kids who were vandalizing and shooting up his neighborhood in southeast Atlanta. Then he joined W-Underdogs, where he found a new purpose.
“I wanted to be a W-Underdog to help dogs,” he says. “Another reason is that I don’t want to join a street gang and become a gang member to get murdered.”
Dismayed by all of the chained dogs and troubled youths she saw, Grace Hamlin launched W-Underdogs, a grassroots nonprofit in Peoplestown, south of downtown Atlanta, in 2014. Funded by grants and donations, the young volunteers build doghouses from scrap wood donated by The Home Depot, give out free dog food and work in partnership with the LifeLine Animal Project to coordinate free spay-neuter services and vaccinations throughout South Atlanta.
“These communities are so impoverished that people lack the transportation and means to take their pets to the vet,” she says, “so we make the kids neighborhood heroes who fix pet problems.”
The volunteers patrol their neighborhoods and scour the block for signs of animal cruelty. They frequently find dogs that lack shelter, so they offer the pet owner one of their doghouses.
“That way, the neighbors feel comfortable with what might otherwise feel like an intrusion,” she says. “They believe they are assisting the kids.”
The W-Underdogs help an estimated 60 dogs a year, and they have spay and neuter services for both dogs and cats – including a colony of 60 feral cats they then found homes for in barns across the state.
“The kids learn lessons in compassion, leadership and responsibility,” Hamlin says.