Rhonda Sykes

We congratulate Rhonda Sykes, our 2013 National Kind Teacher of the Year award winner. A high school chemistry teacher, Sykes was chosen for her exceptional contributions to humane education in her community of Austell, Georgia and beyond.

The National Kind Teacher Award Program honors pre K-12 classroom teachers who include humane lessons in the curriculum or inspire students to act on behalf of animals in an effective, innovative manner. The Humane Society of the United States and its affiliates have given this award annually since 1981, recognizing outstanding teachers who consistently incorporate humane education into the curriculum and/or motivate students to get involved in community service for animals. We recently had the honor of interviewing Mrs. Sykes about her inspiring work to lead students in helping homeless pets:

What inspired you to launch the school club, Boggs’ Doggs?
I have always loved and cared for animals, but as an adult I have been able to focus my passion in a way that makes a real difference for animals. Tami Smith, a former administrator of the science department at South Cobb High School where I teach, was a regular volunteer for an animal rescue group. One day she casually asked me and a few other teachers if we’d like to volunteer our time to walk rescued dogs. The night that I said, “yes” to her invitation completely changed my life. I became a regular volunteer with the animal rescue group which really opened up my eyes to the vast numbers of homeless animals and the number who were being euthanized in my community every year. One veterinarian at the rescue group supported the idea of forming school community service clubs - around that time, a senior at my school asked me to sponsor a club. In February 2007, we held our first Boggs’ Doggs club meeting and over 100 students attended and joined! It was named after Beth Boggs’, another animal lover at the school who passed away several years ago. The club continues to be one of the largest and most active clubs on our school campus.

We heard that there was one special animal that helped prompt the club’s formation?
Yes! One night while I was volunteering with the animal rescue group, I noticed a tiny kitten named Romeo who had just had his leg amputated. I was told he was not eating and might not make it through the night unless he received appropriate and constant care. I offered to foster Romeo and ended up taking him to school with me to ensure that he would survive. At first, I kept him in my storage room and hidden from view. However, the students noticed me spending extra time in the storage room before and after class and began asking questions. I finally introduced them to Romeo and explained why I needed to bring him to work with me. From then on, the students requested that I let Romeo come out and visit them - they behaved so much better with Romeo in the room! I was really touched to see how all of the students (athletes, cheerleaders, band kids, shy kids of all races and genders, etc.) made an instant connection with him. It still brings a tear to my eye to remember a 200 pound football player, holding this tiny little kitten in his arms up against his football jersey all while still doing his chemistry work. Everyone loved Romeo!

What are the main goals of Boggs’ Doggs?
My hope was that the club would provide an opportunity to educate students about homeless animals and to decrease the number of animals within the community euthanized each year. The Boggs’ Doggs club focuses on education and advocacy. Students are educated about animal welfare issues that include: encouraging them to adopt and not buy their new pets, addressing the importance of spay and neuter, and inspiring them to make a lifetime commitment to their pets. Our advocacy includes: supporting community rescue groups by assisting them in finding loving homes for homeless animals, creating animal-focused volunteer opportunities for students, and conducting supply drives and fundraisers.

How have your colleagues responded to your club model?
Once the Boggs’ Doggs club at South Cobb High School was up and running and productive, other teachers in other schools began to hear about the difference we were making and inquired about how to start similar clubs at their schools. There are now 20-25 other school-based animal rescue clubs within the Austell, Georgia region that began as a direct result of the impact that Boggs’ Doggs was having within our community.

What is your hope for the future of your club?
Humane Education is not just something I weave into my professional education career; it is a huge part of my personal life as well. I also helped to start an animal rescue group with a group of my friends called, “Road Trip Home Animal Rescue” that focuses on saving animals from the euthanasia list at local, high-kill shelters. For more information about this group please visit: I hope in the future that humane education clubs and programs continue to inspire and educate students to take action to help animals. I often hear people say “Someone should do something to help that animal.” I hope to empower my students to know that they can be that someone.

As a prize, Mrs. Sykes received a framed certificate and scholarship to HSU’s Certified Humane Education Specialist online program. Learn more about the National Kind Teacher Award.