This Life with Gracie: How a woman’s love for rescue dogs is transforming kids’ lives

James Mathis, 15, of Atlanta bonds with a dog during one of W-Underdogs’ rescue missions. CONTRIBUTED

James Mathis, 15, of Atlanta bonds with a dog during one of W-Underdogs’ rescue missions. CONTRIBUTED

Grace Hamlin was doing a little gardening, minding her own business one day when she noticed a kid pass by, crying.

It would’ve been easy to just ignore the kid. In Peoplestown, it wasn’t all that unusual to see kids crying, but Hamlin stopped and asked the little fellow what was wrong.

She followed him to a nearby park where a group of kids, enclosed in a circle of adults egging them on, were brawling.

Hamlin called the police, but by the time they arrived, the crowd had dispersed. She could’ve just let it go. The only children Hamlin had, after all, were of the four-legged kind, mostly stray dogs she’d been rescuing for, oh, nearly 20 years.

She started attending community meetings and soon discovered children in her neighborhood were being left to fend for themselves. There were no after-school programs. Gangs were wreaking havoc. Most of their parents were too overwhelmed with life to be bothered.

“I started asking the kids to come help me walk the dogs,” she told me recently.

Grace Hamlin, founder of W-Underdogs, and two members of her crew show off puppies. CONTRIBUTED

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Slowly they started to stick around, playing with each other and the dogs. By the fall of 2013, Hamlin had collected nearly a dozen kids, ages 5-10, who helped her care for the animals.

“It turned into something really beautiful,” Hamlin said.

It turned into W-Underdogs, pronounced Wonderdogs, a nonprofit that pairs animals with at-risk youths to teach them compassion and kindness, to give them hope.

It made sense.

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“I came to this country because of Wonder Woman,” Hamlin said as a smile crept across her face.

Well, sort of. At age 10, Hamlin and two of her siblings lived in an orphanage in Costa Rica. When a Washington, D.C., woman tried to adopt her, she at first refused. She changed her mind when the woman, now her mother, told her the superhero lived in D.C.

“I loved Wonder Woman,” she said.

When she graduated from high school in 1997, Hamlin joined the U.S. Army, serving three years before being honorably discharged.

She’d spend the next decade in California, then Nevada before moving to Atlanta in 2011.

By then, rescuing stray dogs was akin to breathing. It gave her life meaning.

She was still trying to figure out what to do with the rest of it when she extended the same compassion she had for animals to the children of Peoplestown and eventually founded Underdogs, then changed it to W-Underdogs to deflect any negative connotations.

By the time Hamlin officially launched W-Underdogs in 2014, Peoplestown had already started to notice the change she was making, not just for strays but the children who helped her and the community itself.

As they went about cleaning trash from streets, planting crape myrtles and rescuing dogs, the crime rate started to fall and property values shot up.

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Eventually Hamlin was forced to move to Perkinson Park 4 miles away. Like a lot of other longtime residents who rented out homes in Peoplestown, Hamlin’s landlord got a cash offer on the home and decided to sell.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Meanwhile, her outreach continued to grow. The more dogs she and the kids rescued, the more doghouses they built, the bigger the demand became.

On the one hand, the community had embraced her efforts, even donating money to keep W-Underdogs going. On the other, she couldn’t help noticing people seemed more concerned about the state of dogs than they were about the status of the children who were helping her.

“There was no outrage for the way these kids were growing up,” she said.

To be fair, Hamlin was oblivious, too, at first.

Here she was rescuing dogs, feeding them, building houses for them, when the kids who were helping her lived in homes with leaky roofs and where chips and soda often masqueraded as meals.

“It was such a wake-up call,” she said. “No one was investing in them.”

Hamlin was. By teaching them to care for animals, she was teaching them how to care for each other. By teaching them to fight for the rights of animals, she was teaching them to fight for themselves.

For that and her efforts on behalf of animals, Hamlin was recognized recently by the Petco Foundation and world-renowned pet behavior expert Victoria Stilwell. She was named one of six Unsung Heroes.

Stilwell said Hamlin’s unwavering dedication to helping kids and animals in some of Atlanta’s toughest neighborhoods makes her a hero.

“Her compassion and desire to teach people about empathy and kindness through her work with the W-Underdogs makes her a leader in her community and so deserving of this recognition.”

It’s hard to argue that point.

Congratulations, Grace Hamlin. You’re the real Wonder Woman.

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Free. Noon-3 p.m. Oct. 21. East Atlanta Farmers Market, 572 Stokeswood Ave., Atlanta. Facebook: Dogtoberfest EAV.