Madeline Olliff’s transition into college wasn’t the easiest. Months after she walked the stage at Sequoyah High School, her grandfather passed away, which came only months after her childhood dog, Zeke, passed away. Then during her first semester of college, her family lost their other dog, Patsie.
“I missed my dogs at home and decided to reach out on Bobcat Exchange to find ways that I could volunteer with animals,” said Olliff, a biology major.
The responses led her to the Animal Rescue Foundation and the Baldwin County Animal Shelter. It wasn’t until her sorority started hosting volunteer days at the Baldwin County Animal Shelter that Olliff had the opportunity to get involved.
“Up until the day I volunteered at the shelter, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what I was passionate about,” said Olliff. “When I went to the shelter, it was an epiphany moment for me. I knew even if I couldn’t be a vet—that I had to do something.”
Olliff left the shelter in tears. The facility, which houses animals for the entire county, consists of 17 dog kennels and 15 cat kennels. The most jarring for Olliff was the simple fact that the animals didn’t have a fenced-in outside play area.
“I called my mom right after I left, and I was so upset because they weren’t getting help that they so desperately needed,” said Olliff. “My mom actually told me that she didn’t want me volunteering if it was going to make me so sad, but I knew right then that I had to do something.”
After her first visit, Olliff started dedicating her Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays starting at 8 a.m. to volunteering at the shelter. The more her friends saw her dedication, the more they were interested and started volunteering. Soon, Olliff walked into the GIVE Center looking for help and guidance on how to take the group to the next level.
Shelter Buddies became a registered student organization in fall 2015, and Olliff’s first interest meeting attracted more than 30 students. Her passion for animal welfare became contagious to each student that heard about her cause.
“My parents have always raised me to not be a bystander. When you see something wrong, you always stand up and do something about it,” said Olliff. “And what I saw at the shelter that day I volunteered… it was wrong. The animals didn’t deserve that and the people that work and volunteer there didn’t deserve it.”
After becoming an official RSO, Olliff’s first project was to host a fundraiser to fund an outdoor playpen. The original goal was $1,200 and the group managed to raise $1,750 in less than a month. The pen is now a mainstay at the shelter where volunteers take dogs for playtime.
“We try to do a fundraiser a month,” said Olliff. “I think our most successful fundraiser was Six against Sickness, which challenged our members to raise at least $6 in one day.”
The $6 covers a Capstar treatment, a flea and tick preventative medication. For kittens and puppies, Olliff said this can be life-saving treatment.
“We raised a little over $1,400 in one day,” she said. “These are funds that go into the shelter’s medical fund so animals that come in with issues can be treated and have the possibility of being adopted instead of euthanized.”
But while Olliff was making strides with Shelter Buddies, she was also making huge changes in her academic career—switching from marketing to biology to pursue her newfound passion of veterinary science. The realization that there are only 30 schools in the U.S. that admit roughly 100 students per class, didn’t deter her from making the leap.
“I’ve had so much support in my major. A lot of us STEM majors work together in study groups or make Google Docs that we’ll study together,” she said. “Every professor I’ve had has always been open for me asking questions, and I know that they want me to succeed.”
Olliff, from Woodstock, Georgia, also understands the disparities of metro versus rural animal welfare facilities. Part of her plan post-graduation is to advocate for more animal welfare legislation in Georgia, specifically for more rural areas. Her post-graduation plans also include taking a gap year possibly interning for a vet or working for a shelter in Atlanta.
Throughout the last three years, Olliff has remained committed to Shelter Buddies, organizing training sessions, training senior members to be leaders in the group, taking a stand for animal welfare in campus and local government and leading consistent fundraisers for the shelter. The group has grown from Olliff and two friends to an organization of more than 80 members. Although she’s become a natural leader through this experience, Olliff said she never saw herself capable of a feat this large.
“It’s opened up so much for me that I never thought possible,” she said. “I played softball and was a catcher, and for people that know the sport, you know it’s a behind-the-scenes kind of position. It wasn’t until I came to Georgia College that I knew I had the support from the school and the GIVE Center that I felt comfortable taking the lead.”
For Olliff’s work with Shelter Buddies, she was recently honored with the Giving Tree Award, annually awarded by the GIVE Center to a student who has left a lasting legacy of service at the university. Shelter Buddies also took home the Horizon Award, given to new service groups, and Student Organization of the Year.
“It’s well deserved for everyone on my executive board—they have been so stellar and I wouldn’t be able to do all of this without them.”
Olliff said that while she’s leaving the group in capable hands, the hand-over is bittersweet. She’s filled with a sense of hope by the commitment and excitement she’s sees by new members.
“It’s my child so of course it’s hard leaving,” she said. “I still see so much more that needs to change, but I know they’re just going to grow and get better. That’s all I can really ask for.”