Dogged pursuit pays off

Michelle Riccio ’09 has won a $25,000 Pepsi Refresh grant that will allow her to fund a program that combines the rescue of shelter dogs with the rehabilitation of prison inmates. It’s a pet project that she has hoped to do since she was a student at Wheaton.
Michelle Ricco 2009
Riccio was involved in the rescue of both dogs pictured. The golden retriever is named Tucker; he was adopted from the Norton Animal Shelter and is living the sweet life with Riccio’s aunt and family in Rhode Island. (He came into the shelter as a stray while she was volunteering there, and she helped coordinate the adoption.) The black mutt is her family dog Bailey. She was adopted from Home Away From Home Rescue in South Carolina. “After months and months of searching for our new family member, I found her posting on (the national adoption website for animal shelters and animal rescues).”

Her program, Don’t Throw Us Away, has been approved by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and has been implemented in the North Central Correctional Institution at Gardner, in Gardner, Mass. “This really is a dream come true,” said Riccio, a Connecticut resident. “I am so excited! I have been working on creating a prison dog program since November 2008, the fall of my senior year at Wheaton. All the hard work finally paid off.”

The program aims to give inmates a second chance, to be defined by the good they can do, rather than by the wrongs that they have done, she said. “For these inmates, experiencing the unconditional love of a pet gives them a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. Being responsible for someone and having the dogs rely on them for care, attention and training improves the inmates’ perspective on life and themselves. And they learn compassion from their dogs and use these skills to build relationships with people.”

The dogs, which would have been euthanized in kill shelters, also get a second chance at life.

Riccio has always had a soft place in her heart for animals. She has been involved in animal rescue work for more than four years, as a volunteer at the Norton Animal Shelter, as well as a dog foster for Forever Home Rescue New England in Walpole, Mass. She grew up with a blind Portuguese water dog named Bear, who, she said, “taught me that no one is perfect, but everyone (and everything) is deserving of love.” Her dog, Bailey, is a rescued animal.

Riccio tried for four consecutive months to win a Pepsi Refresh grant before succeeding. Pepsi has been awarding grants of $5,000 to $250,000 for projects that will have a positive impact, or “refresh” the world. The projects that get the most votes online each month are eligible to receive funding. Riccio was notified in December 2010 that she would receive $25,000, pending a verification process and paperwork.

Eleven inmates have already signed up for the program and there is a waitlist. Riccio also has been contacted by a documentary filmmaker, who wants to interview her about Don’t Throw Us Away for his new film about the healing connections between humans and animals.

Besides animal rescue work, Riccio is passionate about theatre and English literature. She majored in English with a concentration in creative writing, and minored in theatre studies at Wheaton. Her career goal is to become a literary manager at a new writing theatre, as well as an established playwright. For now, she works for Aspen Re America, an international reinsurance company. She plans to get a master’s degree in dramaturgy within the next few years.

However, volunteer work will always be in her life. “One thing I always admired about Wheaton was its sense of duty to give back to, and improve, our community, whether it be our local community in Massachusetts or our global community. I was part of the Hurricane Katrina relief team for Wheaton’s first New Orleans Alternative Winter Break Trip. In so many ways that trip developed empathy and a sense of duty in me that was more intense and urgent than before.

“I try to live my life by Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words, ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world.’ If the path of my life shows that I left the world a little better than when I first entered it, I’ll know that I was successful.”