Young girl's rite of passage trip to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Eleven-year-old Mariah Wilkowski has a thing about animals, especially dogs. So when she was promoted from the fifth grade to sixth -- a rite of passage in her family -- she had the option to take a vacation anywhere in the world. She chose Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

A trip to the Sanctuary as a rite of passage

She found Best Friends on the Internet, then learned more when a friend of a friend recommended it to her father, Paul Wilkowski. He works for American Airlines, which includes travel benefits for the family.

When Mariah’s brothers and sister graduated from grade school, her sister Marisa chose Costa Rica, her brother Jeremy opted for Boston and a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, and another brother, Justin, chose Grand Cayman in the Caribbean.

But when it came Mariah’s turn to choose a vacation destination, her anywhere in the world was Utah. Her parents asked if she was sure. "You can go to Hawaii," her mother Tammy told her, "or to a dude ranch, where you can ride horses."

No, Mariah told her parents, she had no interest in Hawaii or even a ranch. "She knew just what she wanted to do. She wanted to volunteer with animals and be hands on," Tammy says.

Volunteering with animals for five days

And hands on she was. For five days. Mariah and her parents volunteered at Cat World, then at the Puppy Care Center, and at Old Friends and the Fairway in Dogtown, where canines live on the Sanctuary grounds. "We had no idea what to expect," says her mother, "but we knew Mariah would love it."

One afternoon at the Fairway, Mariah spent time with Seager, a Labrador retriever mix. It was tough to tell who enjoyed the playtime more -- Mariah or Seager. And at the Puppy Care Center, she spent even more quality time with Sony, a pit bull terrier pup. "She fell in love with him," Tammy says.

That’s not surprising, considering the menagerie the family has at home. "I love dogs," says Mariah, who, at her home near Dallas, Texas, has a boxer/Labrador mix named Rusty Roo, who’s a rescue dog, not to mention a bearded dragon, a couple of land tortoises, and a pond in the back yard with water turtles and fish.

Mariah enjoyed her time at Dogtown, so much so that, once home, she wanted to go back to the Sanctuary to adopt Sony and Seager (who has since found a home). "Maybe another time," her mother says.

Was the Sanctuary everything the Wilkowskis thought it would be? Just ask this former fifth grader. "It’s better," Mariah says. "It’s fun."

Plan your trip to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Photo by Molly Wald