“Hey mom! What kind of dogs are those?”
“Those are probably street dogs, Azor,” Aimee responded. “They’re called village dogs here.”
“Well, where’s the owner? And why are they out on the streets?”
“They don’t really have owners. That’s why they’re called village dogs. They kind of have their own communities.”
“Ok, well can we feed them? Can we take them home? They look starving, and they’re all so skinny!”
“You can feed them, but we can’t take them home. I know it’s hard but there is not a lot we can do.”
It was 2010. Aimee Goodwin and her sons, Azor and Sam, along with Eydie, John, and Brook Leigh, also of Norwich, were cycling the streets of Tulum, Mexico. They had spent the past week coming across various “callejeros,” or Mexican “street dogs” that are often good-natured but don’t have official homes. After witnessing her children’s outreach of kindness for these dogs, Aimee reflected on how she had just responded to Azor. Did I really just tell my son that we can’t do anything to help? What kind of message is that to leave with my kids? Or with myself?
• • • • •
The Goodwin family returned home to Norwich. The family had left the village dogs in Tulum, but they had adopted a newfound sense of urgency and a strong desire to help alleviate the stress placed on many of these dogs. After recognizing that she and her boys certainly had the capacity to do something, Aimee decided to propose a family rescue trip to Puerto Rico. Only this time, they wouldn’t just feed the dogs. The Goodwins returned home from their first trip alongside two “Satos,” one adopted by them and the other by Michelle and Dan Gottlieb, formerly of Norwich. Aimee knew she had found her calling. More importantly, she understood that she could share this sense of purpose with others, particularly high school students who needed unique service opportunities.
“Most high school students struggle to find service options that work for them,” Aimee notes. “I know many that age who would be hard-pressed to help other humans. But puppies. Dogs. That’s what always makes this effort worth it: to stumble upon those little unanticipated moments in which students just melt while helping these dogs.”
With the initial framework in place, Aimee just needed to garner the support of the Dresden School Board. Who will go on a trip like this? Will students really be interested in such a logistical nightmare? And they were right to ask these questions. Who would sign up to spend their vacation grappling with the reality of luring, trapping, and rescuing stray dogs in Puerto Rico when they could be on the beach somewhere? Aimee’s idea solidified: Surf and Satos. She organized the trip around cultural immersion with a service component. Approximately 300 students applied to go on Surf and Satos’ inaugural trip in 2016.
This first group of students and community members rescued 9 Satos from Puerto Rico, all of which were adopted by families within the Upper Valley. Word of mouth led to demand for more of these awesome dogs and soon Aimee Goodwin was, officially, the proud owner of…50 Satos from Puerto Rico. She recognized, quickly, that if they were going to be bringing home this many dogs on each trip, she would need additional support from the community. Aimee hosted a dinner at her home in Norwich and invited friends and family to engage in a brainstorming session as to how best to move forward with this initiative. From that dinner, “Student Rescue Project” was born and incorporated in 2017. They have since run service trips to The Bahamas, Costa Rica and, of course, Puerto Rico. They have even delivered dogs rescued from Puerto Rico to American service members stationed abroad in Germany. To date, SRP has worked with over 200 students and community members helping the endeavor and has rescued, vetted, and rehomed over 1200 dogs.
“These trips continue to give students an understanding of how our conception of dog ownership, here in Norwich and around New England, differs from the concepts of ownership in other places,” Aimee reflected. “Puerto Rico is also a place where I feel comfortable taking students. We have formed some great relationships there, we have ground transportation, and we work with the locals to help as many dogs as we can. With such a strong foundation, we can really get a lot done there and safely expose volunteers to the raw issue of animal abandonment and neglect.”
But the challenges persist to this day, and the logistics are increasingly complex, as Aimee and her team continue to face headwinds from Covid, higher travel costs, fewer flights, and greater restrictions on traveling with animals.
“We need more help now than we did in 2016 to get these dogs back to New England. We are always looking for volunteer travelers to bring some of the puppies back with them, and we are always looking for help fostering these dogs.”
And even though Aimee welcomes community members getting involved in any way they can, she is quick to appreciate the reality of these dogs’ pasts and potential futures.
“Rescue dogs are not for everyone. I think the mistake some people make is in thinking that these dogs will be the same as buying some pure breed for $3000. These dogs have unknown backstories, and many have never lived in homes. However, the majority of the dogs we take are surprisingly well-adjusted and I find that most adopters are stepping up to be part of the solution and understand that this might take some additional work once the dogs are placed.”
“These trips also allow me to talk to students about poverty, and how some of these dogs wind up on the streets because their ‘owners’ had no other options. We are quick to villainize those who give up dogs, but after you see the situations on some of the islands, particularly after hurricanes, when everyone is just trying to look out for themselves and get off the island, you develop a much stronger sense of empathy towards others.”
“Besides,” Aimee reflects, temporarily back at home in Norwich, appreciating some much-needed down time in between rescue trips. “Every time I want to quit, I just remember that we’ve become excellent problem solvers. To watch the students who have been working with me for years encounter a problem and come up with a resourceful solution without needing my help is just so rewarding. To quit now would be heartbreaking because I know how much we’re helping.” Annie, proud mother of 4 “satito” whelps, none of which have yet to open their eyes on this new street-less world of theirs, looks up at Aimee lovingly and smiles.