Fayette County

Lexington girl, 13, gets Pepsi grant to help dogs

Mollie Watson, 13, with her dogs, Gucci, left, and Chloe, hopes her Comfort 4 Canines program can permanently provide helpful items for canines at animal shelters.
Mollie Watson, 13, with her dogs, Gucci, left, and Chloe, hopes her Comfort 4 Canines program can permanently provide helpful items for canines at animal shelters. © Mark Cornelison

Mollie Watson is 13, lives in Lexington and loves dogs.

Recently, she became concerned that many dogs in smaller Kentucky animal shelters might lack warm blankets on which to sleep this winter, and she decided to do something about it.

Mollie wrote a proposal for providing the dogs with blankets and toys, and she entered it in PepsiCo's national online Pepsi Refresh Challenge contest in November. Just before Christmas, she learned she had won and would receive a $5,000 grant from Pepsi, which she will use to buy doggie blankets and toys, and establish a system so people can donate items or money to the project.

She has established a charity called Comfort 4 Canines, set up through the Bluegrass Community Foundation in Lexington, where people can make donations. Her dad, Ralph "Bud" Watson II, helped her put it together, but she did all the heavy lifting of developing her idea and submitting it to Pepsi.

"Many times in these kinds of things the parents do the work, but she did virtually everything on her own," Bud Watson said. "The money is not important to her; it's the fact of what it can do that captured her attention."

This is how Mollie described her hopes for the project on the contest's Web site:

"I am a 13-year-old girl named Mollie. Ever since I was a little girl I've had a deep passion for animals. ... I truly want to make a difference in the lives of animals in shelters."

Mollie's initial plan is to buy and distribute about 80 washable dog beds and 75 "indestructible" doggie toys to shelters in Kentucky. But she hopes donations eventually could let the project reach around the country.

She said the idea grew out of her work volunteering at area animal shelters. She and her father started visiting shelters on Sunday afternoons a few years ago to walk the dogs and give them exercise.

"She has a lifelong interest in animals," her father said, "and she noticed that at some of the smaller shelters dogs were sleeping on concrete floors and were lacking what Mollie calls 'comfort items.'"

Wanting to help, she developed the idea for Comfort 4 Canines, and submitted it to the Pepsi Refresh Project.

On the forefront of a trend in so-called charitable marketing, Pepsi each month has accepted 1,000 "do good" projects submitted to the challenge, which began in 2009. People across the country vote for their favorite projects online at Refresheverything.com. At the end of the month, the top vote-getting applicants win grants of up to $250,000 to implement their projects. Pepsi says the project has awarded more than $20 million in 2010. The final round of project ideas will be posted Jan. 3, Pepsi said.

The first time Mollie tried to submit her proposal she got in too late to make the 1,000-project cut.

"Then she kind of learned the ropes," her father said. "Applications can be submitted starting at midnight on the first of the month, and Mollie was online at 11:59 p.m. and hitting 'enter' when the clock struck midnight. Her project probably caught the attention of voters because of her age."

Mollie expects to get the first installment on her $5,000 grant in early January and is eager to get started distributing blankets and other items. A crucial part of the plan, however, is to establish a donation system so the project can continue and grow.

For example, she's hoping to reach businesses, such as airlines or hotels, that might have old, unneeded blankets that could be donated to Comfort 4 Canines.

"You could buy a lot of blankets and pillows for $5,000," Bud Watson said. "But we think that if it's done right it could grow well beyond that."