MID CITY — The founder of a local nonprofit is taking a new approach to an old problem — alleviating the over-crowding of municipal animal shelters through compassion and education.

Nearly 10 years ago while she was a student at USC, Santa Monica-resident Ashley Oelsen rescued her Weimaraner, Sol, from a local shelter.

The simple act changed her life’s direction.

“She brought so much to my life,” Oelsen said, a hand resting on Sol, “I promised to give back.”

How to do that in a meaningful way became the conundrum.

Oelsen appreciated the value of dog rescues. Liberating dogs from death row at the shelters and providing them with a permanent, loving home was a noble act, but represented a drop in the bucket.

According to Marie Atake, the founder of Forte Animal Rescue, another Westside nonprofit that plucks dogs from certain doom, the city of Los Angeles kills 30,000 animals each year by itself.

Nationally, that number hits 5 million.

In the face of such numbers, rescuing one dog at a time was emotionally rewarding, but ignored the root of the problem, in Oelsen’s eyes.

“If you walk in and free every dog in the shelter, it will be full again tomorrow,” Oelsen said. “I want to see the stats change.”

The only way to do that was to change the way people perceive the animals in their lives, and to make a dent there, you have to start young.

Education, beginning in the earliest grades, was animals’ best hopes, Oelsen decided.

The concept held a great deal of meaning for her. The daughter of a single-mother flight attendant, a younger Oelsen had few prospects and fewer dollars to chase them with.

What she had was a fine mind, which was recognized by a local private school that granted her a scholarship to get through high school.

The act sent her on to four-year university where she studied history, theology and business before entering the corporate world at publisher McGraw-Hill.

“I put a high price and value on education,” she said.

After a great deal of research, time and a few how-to books on tax law, Oelsen created the Sharing Our Love Foundation, also called the SOL Foundation after her beloved Weimaraner.

The stated mission: To prevent cruelty to animals through education, awareness and advocacy, by teaching children to respect and empathize with other living creatures.

Instructing children to care for animals was one piece in a larger puzzle. As Oelsen researched the topic, she found that homes with animal abuse had a higher incidence of child abuse as well, and that the presence of animals in the classroom had a positive influence on children’s empathy toward creatures and each other.

With the help of classroom teachers co-opted for the cause, Oelsen developed a curriculum for entering the classroom. It starts with kindergarteners getting lessons on why not to pull tails.

“By seventh or eighth grade, we get a little riskier and start talking about puppy mills,” Oelsen said, referring to the practice of some breeders who keep animals in inhumane conditions and overbreed them in order to maximize profits at pet stores.

The curriculum incorporates fill-in-the-blank vocabulary and math skills so that kids can practice academic skills as they improve their world relationships.

Oelsen now works in a handful of charter schools and other elementary schools in Baldwin Park.

Breaking into the classrooms has been hard. First there’s the bureaucracy. Secondly, there are the teachers, whose livelihoods depend on their students’ success on standardized tests and don’t have the motivation to cede any of their valuable class time, no matter the cause.

Still, Oelsen managed to get into a few classrooms every two weeks, and the results have already been dramatic. She’s seen kids appear at animal rescue events, help gather up toys for dejected animals and raise money for local shelters.

The classroom time is a welcome relief from the other pieces of Oelsen’s advocacy, which often include forays into the vicious world of the shelter system or wading through the pitfalls of the nonprofit world.

“It’s the only time I feel good at the end of my day,” Oelsen said.

Although it’s not the main thrust of her work, Oelsen still gets into the trenches for rescues. She recently returned from a trip to Canada, where she helped place several pit bulls in new homes.

The “bully breed” has a bad reputation in the United States, and can be difficult, if not impossible, to find homes for. Our northern neighbors don’t harbor such prejudices, she said.

Images of the dogs she’s helped rescue appear on the back of Oelsen’s business cards, a reminder of the successes in an otherwise tragic climate.

The SOL Foundation has come to a crossroads. It’s growing, with interested parties in other states and other countries asking how to make satellite branches of the foundation to help animals and children.

Oelsen, in many ways, is the foundation’s one-woman show. She saved herself $10,000 by setting up the legal framework of the foundation without the aid of a lawyer, built the foundation’s website from scratch and even made the T-shirts.

To get it all done, and ensure the foundation began with a firm foundation, she left her job in the corporate world. She’s been living off of her savings ever since, refusing to take a salary from the very foundation she created.

Soon it will be time to go back to the working world to replenish her savings, which will mean further delegation of the SOL Foundation responsibilities.

“It’s somewhere between it being liberating versus the feeling that this is my baby,” Oelsen said.

Moving forward, she knows, at least, that the SOL Foundation has its eyes on the prize: The end of mass killings of animals and animal cruelty.

“It’s a large, ambitious, ridiculous goal,” Oelsen said. “It’s totally my style.”


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