Giving is the best present

Pre-teen foregoes birthday presents to benefit animals and visit Best Friends.
By Jennifer Hayes

Ask kids what they love most about birthday parties and they probably will say, “Presents.” But ask 12-year-old Natalie and you get a completely different answer. What she loves most is the opportunity to help homeless pets, especially those at Best Friends.


Tanya Vickers, Natalie’s mom, always taught her daughter to question excess consumerism and how much stuff she really needs. So a few years ago, she asked for a different kind of party to celebrate her eighth birthday.

“I asked all my friends, instead of giving me a present, to give me donations for the humane society,” says Natalie. “I got a lot of (donations).” In fact, her special soiree brought in roughly $250 for the Humane Society of Utah, a Best Friends No More Homeless Pets Network partner. Not surprisingly, mom was pleased.

“I’m really, really happy that it’s not difficult for her to give up her presents,” says Tanya. “It’s not like giving up anything (because) she’s getting something else that makes her feel even better.”

Natalie continues to forego birthday presents, instead asking for gifts to help homeless pets. And her friends are now getting in on the action by throwing their own fundraiser birthdays for their favorite charities.

Better than Disneyland

Natalie and her lemonade standBut Natalie’s philanthropic efforts don’t end with birthdays. She sells old toys at garage sales and operates lemonade stands where 100 percent of the proceeds go to help homeless animals. Quite the salesperson, she once collected $20 for a 50-cent glass of lemonade.

However, her last lemonade stand was definitely a labor of love. The proceeds were designated for Best Friends, and she and her mom made the trip to the Sanctuary to personally deliver the donation.

The night before they arrived, Tanya says, “Natalie was so excited that she could hardly sleep. She said a trip to Best Friends is even better than going to Disneyland.”

Natalie’s donation was not just about money. She also brought pet food and toys, and looked forward to seeing the Sanctuary and volunteering with the animals. Natalie and Tanya helped out at Dogtown, cleaning the runs and hand-feeding shy dogs. One dog was all cuddles and kisses, perhaps because he was grateful that they did such a nice job cleaning his area. That was all the thanks Natalie needed.

Teaching moment

Natalie at Best FriendsThe time spent at the Sanctuary helped this pre-teen volunteer learn about the plight of homeless pets. It’s one thing to hear that 9,000 cats and dogs die in shelters every day, but it is entirely different to see loving, rescued pets still in need of a home. “Until you physically go there and spend some time helping out, (you don’t realize) these animals are just like your dog,” says Tanya.

Like the humble beginnings of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, children can participate in their own grassroots projects to save homeless pets. With newfound, real-world understanding of the problem, Natalie says, “I think that animals need our help. If you’re an animal lover, be an animal giver.”

Learn more about volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

Photos by Tanya Vickers