By Alicia and Ava Dziak

In a world of iPods, smart phones, tablets, Instagram and video games, sometimes it’s tough to peel the kids away from screens and give them real-world experiences. But, if you use your knowledge and connections as a grown-up to find worthwhile community-service projects for your kids, before you know it, they could be hooked on giving back.

I have two daughters—Ava, who is 12 and in seventh grade, and Lily, who is 10 and in fifth grade. Since my kids were very young, we’ve spent a lot of time volunteering for different local organizations. We’ve helped out at a local nature center, clearing trails and serving food at special events. We’ve painted cabins at Allegany State Park. We’ve made treats and toys for animal rescues. We’ve sorted supplies for inner city schools. We’ve sold kazoos at the mall to raise money for kids with cancer. We’ve decorated holiday bags for food pantries. You name it, chances are we’ve done it.

So, when we heard that in seventh grade, my girls’ school district (Springville) requires that the kids do a year-long project called “Kids Can Make a Difference,” we excitedly imagined the possibilities.

Knowing Ava wants to be a vet when she grows up, she and I started brainstorming ways for her to help and organizations for her to work with. Empire Animal Rescue Society (EARS) came to mind because we had heard great things about them from people who have adopted from them.

EARS is a non-profit organization started in 2011 by Courtney Valent. While the rescue is based in Salamanca, EARS animals reside with foster families all over the area. This is a great way for the foster family to get a feel for the cat or dog’s personality, likes and dislikes, so that when potential adopters come to meet the animals, the foster family can address any concerns or questions.

Ava and I sent an email to Valent asking if we could foster a dog. We heard back almost right away and had out first foster only about a week later.

We had no idea what to expect from this experience. We already had two of our own dogs, plus two cats, and we weren’t sure how a new dog would fit in.

We had arranged to pick up Tucker — a two and a half year old lab mix — at an adoption event at Fall Festival in Ellicottville. It was mobbed and we basically plucked him from the crowd and led him to my van, which was parked nearby. We thought he’d be hesitant to go with us, but he jumped right in and fell asleep on my daughter’s lap in the back seat on the way home.

Once we got home, we introduced him to our other dogs. He almost immediately began playing with our five-year-old yellow lab, Scarlet. He was the first male dog we’d ever had at the house, but besides a few obvious differences, he fit right in with our female animals. He also fit in perfectly with our family.

Tucker, whose ribs were visible when we got him because he was so skinny, ate like a champ and made himself at home with my family in every way. To make a long story short, we ended up adopting Tucker. And while some may call us “foster failures,” we take the experience in stride, knowing that we have given Tucker a good home and he has brought us so much happiness.

Since then, we have had four other fosters, all puppies. Some of them have needed medicine, which Ava has been great about administering. We have worked on crate training, house training and leash training. The puppies have brought new life to our 14-year-old rescue dog Marley. We’ve taken pups to appointments, attended a day-long adoption event and met some amazing people along the way. Sure, we’ve had a few sleepless nights and a lot of messy floors, but it’s been worth it!

This experience so far has taught both of my daughters responsibility and commitment (not to mention unconditional love!), and in an age where distractions and electronics are everywhere and kids can grow up too quickly, I love that Ava has something meaningful to be so passionate about.

Kids CAN make a difference, and, project or not, there are many ways to get involved at a young age and start fostering a love for giving back.

I’m not going to lie — it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s hard finding time to do things. And as far as fostering dogs goes, it gets even harder when we have to part with the pups. But, in the end, I know I’m leading by example and showing my kids that carving out time to help others should be a priority. Get involved. Get your kids involved. Giving is contagious!

We hope you’ll join us on our journey as we chronicle our fostering experience in the Ellicottville Times from now through June. And we’d love to hear from you about your similar experiences or other ways to get kids involved. Email me at alicia@ellicottvilletimes.com or send me a message through our Facebook page at the Ellicottville Times.



Dear Foster Dog Diary,

My name is Ava Dziak and I am a seventh grade student at Springville Griffith Middle School. I am doing a project called “Kids Can Make a Difference” in English and social studies. The purpose of this project is to help make a difference in the world through community service or volunteer work.

The organization that I am working with is called Empire Animal Rescue Society, also known as EARS. I have been fostering dogs to help them and I even had a Christmas party on Dec. 4 to collect donations for EARS. I collected a lot of dog and cat food.

Here is a little bit about the dogs I have fostered so far:

Tucker — I picked him up at the Ellicottville Fall Festival where EARS had a booth. He is a 2.5 year old lab mix. He was abandoned by his owner and ended up at EARS. He was just skin and bones when we got him, but after a lot of food and TLC, he was quickly on his way to recovering. He had a couple meet and greets and we found a family for him, but in the end it didn’t work out. By that time, Tucker had been with us for three weeks and we were very attached to him. We thought he had grown attached to us too — he burrowed under the covers with me and slept with me every night and he would jump into the smallest chair and sit on someone’s lap. He thought he was a lap dog. He also got along with our other dogs and cats. My parents asked if we wanted to adopt him and of course we did! Now he is very protective of us and our house.

Lucky — When we thought Tucker was going home with another family, we went and picked up Lucky from EARS in Salamanca. He was with his brothers and sister. I named him Lucky because he looked like a Dalmation named Lucky from 101 Dalmatians. He was an eight-week-old lab mix from a high kill shelter in Kentucky and was with us for two weeks. Having a puppy was different because he wasn’t house trained or crate trained. We took him to a meet and greet and the family loved him and wanted to adopt him, so they filled out an application and were approved. The best part is that they are our neighbors so we can visit him. A couple weeks later, we picked him up from the vet after he was neutered. He had gotten so big!

Angie — Courtney from EARS dropped Angie off a few days after Lucky left. Angie was a nine-week-old lab/dachshund mix. She was very quiet and shy at first, but after a few minutes she started playing with our dogs and ran around the house. She came from a high kill shelter in Kentucky. She was very high-energy and would sit in the chair with me sometimes. We had her for six days and then took her to an adoption event called the Pet Expo, where several local rescues brought animals they had up for adoption. In less than an hour, she was adopted and went with her new family who live in West Seneca.

Jagger — After Angie got adopted at the Pet Expo, Courtney said we could take Jagger home with us. He was a 12-week-old lab mix, and happened to be Lucky’s brother. He was a real sweetie and was always wagging his tail. He couldn’t stop giving me kisses on my face and loved to snuggle. He was with us for a week and his new family drove to our house all the way from Pittsburgh to pick up Jagger.

Addie — My dad picked Addie up in Salamanca on his way back from a camping trip. She is an eight-week-old beagle and feist mix. (We had never heard of a feist before, but it’s a small hunting dog.) Addie’s mom was only 25 pounds so we don’t think she’ll get that big. Since she is a small dog, she took longer to eat her food and she got cold a lot so we wrapped her in blankets. Also, we could give her baths in the sink because she was so small. She slept with me every night and was super cuddly. She was also from Kentucky. Addie has been adopted by a nice couple from Rochester and will go home with them this weekend.

Things I’ve Learned:

1. You can never be too young to make a difference. I’m only 12 and I feel like I’m helping out a lot!

2. Never give up on a dog, because they are dependent on you for many things.

3. The hardest part about fostering is when they get adopted because you get attached to them. But knowing you’re helping the dog get a good home is awesome! Plus, we usually get another foster puppy soon after one gets adopted.


Ways You Can Help:

1. Like the EARS Facebook page and check out their wish list.

2. Email empirerescue@gmail.com if you can foster an animal or would like to volunteer in other ways.

3. Consider adopting a furry friend! Visit empire.petfinder.com to see all the animals they have up for adoption.