Olivia Yang, in her last year of high school, is only 16 years old. She loves debate and playing basketball, but her future goal of managing a nonprofit and making a positive impact on the world is already coming to fruition. Olivia launched The Paw Plan when the world was in the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.
With two rescue pets, a rescue dog named Charlie, and a recently found kitten named Cleo who adopted her dad on his walk, animal welfare is high priority for her. Today, her team donates supplies, educates people about preventing animal cruelty, and increases adoption rates at several Central Texas shelters.
What inspires you to volunteer?
When you’re part of a community, whether that be with fellow animal lovers, or a marginalized community, you begin to recognize things you think could be improved. I think volunteering is a great way to solve some of those issues. The Paw Plan helps animal welfare, but I’ve also volunteered with Masking a Difference and Dream Equal. Volunteering has been a great way to explore the things I’m passionate about and try to better the lives of others.
Describe your volunteer role with The Paw Plan.
I founded The Paw Plan to help animal shelters that had been overwhelmed during the pandemic. I adopted my own dog from a local shelter in 2019, and I realized even then, that there was overcrowding and underfunding. A lot of shelters don’t receive government funding, so they really rely on donations and volunteers. As the Director of The Paw Plan, I mainly organize and host events with my team to collect donations. We also connect youth with local volunteering opportunities and promote adoptable animals through social media. To date, we’ve donated about $6,000 worth of supplies, worked with over a dozen animal shelters and grown our member base to over 100 volunteers. We’ve really come a long way since this pandemic project.
Did you face any particular challenges starting up during lockdown?
The biggest challenge was just trying to get word out about the donation drives, and of course, hosting all of our meetings and planning sessions online. One way we overcame the former was transitioning a lot of our marketing on to social media. At events, we just did our best to make it as safe as possible. We did drive-thru drop offs where the donors could stay in their cars and we would take the donations out with gloves and masks on.
The pandemic really helped me appreciate the interpersonal relationships we have. It was a double-edged sword in that I got to spend more time with my family, but I also had to get creative with how I was spending time with friends, whether that be on a social distance walk or FaceTiming more. It took some adapting, but it ultimately taught me a lot of valuable lessons.
Why should someone rescue vs. go to a breeder or pet store?
There’s nothing wrong with buying a pet, because they always make our lives just a little bit more positive. But for anyone who’s thinking about adopting, I’d strongly recommend rescuing. Shelters can’t take in as many animals as they would like due to limited resources and space. Adopting — or even fostering — can really take off some strain. The animals are just as loving and deserving of good homes.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Impact doesn’t really need to have a huge price tag or number attached to it. Even in the initial stages, I was worried that our donation drives weren’t collecting enough supplies or we weren’t doing enough for shelters, but I’ve learned how big of an impact you can make by just getting started.
For me, it’s really about individual lives we’re improving, because when you get to meet the animals who are receiving the donated treats or toys or you get to work with some of the younger volunteers, you see that your impact is going way beyond just a few donations.
Are there any future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about?
We’re about to host another donation drive in October. We try to do at least one big event per month, so in November, we’re going to get some of the autistic students at our high school involved in an event to make dog rope toys. And on Sundays, we create a spotlight post on social media highlighting adoptable animals from a local shelter to get the word out. Many shelters aren’t able to dedicate much time and resources towards social media.
Why do you think it’s important to get involved in your community?
Volunteering is a two-way street in the sense that spending your time on a cause that matters to you also helps you find fulfillment. The more you get involved, the more you want to keep getting involved. Ultimately, it’s about doing your best to improve a situation and help a community that matters to you.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
It doesn’t take much to make another person’s — or animal’s — life better. Even if it’s just one can of food or one blanket, or one leash, everything adds up. With The Paw Plan, that can of food might feed a stray cat for a night, or that blanket might keep a puppy warm, or that leash might take a dog out on its very first walk.
Also, it’s never too early—or late—to become involved in volunteering. Several of our volunteers are still in elementary school! Some of our participants are parents or even grandparents. It’s inspiring and refreshing to see people from all walks of life coming together to support the same cause.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Olivia? Find local volunteer opportunities.