As anyone who went to youth group knows, “agape” is Greek for “unconditional love,” and Tanya Willis’ story definitely starts with that. In 2001, she was driving down a country road when a yellow lab puppy jumped out in front of her car. She knew she had to take him home. On the way to his first vet appointment, Willis saw five more lab puppies while driving down that same road. She didn’t think twice.
“I knew I couldn’t just leave them there,” she says. “So I scooped them all up and took them to the vet. Finding those five dogs homes sparked something in me.”
You’ll note Willis said she found homes for only five of the six puppies; as far as she was concerned, the first puppy already had one.
“When I picked Mack up, I knew he was my dog,” she says. “After moving out of my parents’ house I knew I was going to get a dog — to find my dog — but I did not expect that he was going to jump out in front of my car and find me first.”
Willis admired the fact that Mack was bold enough to go looking for help, and that he was the reason his brothers and sisters were ultimately rescued. The runt of the litter, Mack was small, but he led Willis to make a big decision.
“The day I found him I called my mom and said ‘I just had my ‘A-ha’ moment — I know what I’m supposed to do with my life,’” she says.
To the rescue
Willis had never been that involved in the rescue community, though her family always had rescue dogs growing up. She started fostering through other organizations, learning about the community and how rescue works. She was battling a heartworm problem with foster lab Charlie Brown when she met Chris Ashley. She was doing Lab rescue as well, and they immediately found common ground.
“We just clicked,” she says. “We both had experience with the rescue community and we wanted to take all the positives from the other organizations and put it together.”
The friends founded Agape in 2004, but they structured it differently than most rescue operations. They only take dogs, and they don’t have a central location, so all of their operations take place in volunteers’ or staff members’ homes. That system can make planning and logistics tough, but for animals who are coming from traumatic situations, Willis says it may be the only way to give them a fighting chance.
“Rehabilitation is easier when you treat a dog like your own pet,” she says. “If a dog is rescued from a puppy mill, they’ve never seen common household things like a dryer. They’ve never set foot on grass before. We’ve had dogs who experience serious trauma at the sound of a hair dryer, or even someone dropping a spoon on the ground. So being able to acclimate dogs to what it means to be a truly loved pet is an important first step to finding their forever home.”
Beating the odds
Willis has found a lot of those. In the past 10 years, her team has placed 800 dogs. That number is even more impressive considering Agape has only four full-time employees, all of whom work from home offices. What makes it possible, Willis says, is their extensive volunteer network.
“We have 45 foster homes that are willing to take one dog at a time,” she says. “They bring them in, rehabilitate them and work with our adoption coordinator to find them forever homes. We also have more than 300 volunteers, 10 of whom donate 40 hours of their time a week. We’re very blessed. It takes a village.”
Aside from fostering, rehabilitation and adoption, Agape also helps with something most rescues don’t: helping families try to keep their dogs when they feel like they can’t care for them anymore. One family called Agape trying to give away their dog because their house had been foreclosed. Willis and her team worked together to provide that family dog food for a month. For others they negotiated lower vet costs.
“There’s a stereotype that people who turn in their dogs are automatically bad people, but sometimes the families just don’t know where to go,” she says. “They feel like they don’t have a choice, so we bring choices to the table.”
Doing more with less
Sometimes, though, they simply don’t have the resources.
“We’re so outnumbered by dogs who need us,” she says. “The hardest part of my job is saying ‘no’ because we don’t have enough foster space or there’s a dog that we can’t help.”
Willis estimates Agape gets 100 rescue requests a week, many times for animals other than dogs.
“Peacocks, birds, raccoons — we get calls about all kinds of wildlife,” she says. “Someone called the other day to try to get help with a malnourished cow. It’s an emotional roller coaster, but at the end of the day it’s worth it.”
Fielding calls about peacocks is a far cry from the corporate world where Willis began her career. She spent several years as an executive assistant for a marketing firm, but after she started fostering, she knew she had to make a choice. It’s one she’s never regretted.
“We truly are in the business of changing lives, for dogs but also for people. As a foster parent, to see a dog come in and have to learn how to walk on grass or jump on a couch or accept love, and then to see that dog go all the way to embracing a new family — if you can change one life, it’s worth every tear.”
Many thanks to April Hollingsworth & Harmony Designs Photography for the use of the photos in this article.