Every Saturday morning, volunteers gather in Winterville to spend the day working at Sweet Olive Farm, a nonprofit animal rescue.
The farm has been in operation since June 2010, when co-founder Kat Howkins decided her Fulton County home was not big enough to house her eight dogs and a pot-bellied pig, so she rented the property the farm now lies on. Over the last nine years, Sweet Olive Farm has expanded to provide sanctuary for over 100 rescued farm animals. In 2015, Howkins registered Sweet Olive Farm as a nonprofit.
“They say [the] fourth year is the charm,” Howkins says. “We are totally volunteer-run now. That was kind of my dream. I was paying a couple of college students to work here, but I decided to just be straight-up volunteer.”
This shift was possible through the work of regulars and several organizations from the greater Athens community who come to help on Saturdays throughout the year. Janie Sanders is a former dietician from Colbert who discovered Sweet Olive Farm shortly before retiring. She now comes to the farm every day.
“I’m so fortunate to be able to have this place so close to me,” Sanders says. “I usually spend about four hours a day here. I love animals. Nothing is too much trouble when it comes to an animal. Kat taught me the ropes, and I just get more out of it than I give.”
The farm is also supported by businesses such as Aldi, and part of Sanders’ responsibilities include picking up produce past its sell date from the grocery chain and bringing it to the farm to feed the animals. Much of the farm’s monthly expenses come from feed, so contributions like Aldi’s help Howkins rescue as many animals as possible.
Sanders and Howkins get help from other regulars, like Lily Heidger, a home-schooled high-school senior from Dacula who comes to the farm two to three times a week. In addition to manual labor, Heidger also helps run Sweet Olive Farm’s social media and digital outreach efforts. Heidger recently registered Sweet Olive Farm on Patreon, a membership service that allows supporters to give monthly donations of any size in exchange for exclusive perks.
“We have almost $100 a month coming in from Patreon,” Heidger says. “It’s just getting people out here, really. When you tell people on social media to donate, it’s really easy to scroll past it. But when you tell them in person, they see what it’s all going towards.”
Photo Credit: Cassie Wright
On a recent Saturday, regulars like Sanders and Heidger sported Sweet Olive Farm shirts with “Farm Hand” on the back to help lead students from University of Georgia organization Speak Out for Species, or S.O.S., in feeding the animals and working on various projects around the farm.
Lla Anderson, a second-year UGA theater and philosophy major, is a member of S.O.S.
“Volunteering at Sweet Olive Farm is not volunteering in the traditional sense of the word,” Anderson says. “Sure, some jobs require cleaning a pig pen or collecting wood to start a fire to clear the field, but it never feels like work. The volunteers and owners are always so warm and welcoming—you truly feel like a part of the family when you’re there.”
This warm and welcoming vibe brings volunteers of all ages. Howkins even allows children to work on the farm with parent supervision. “Being part of the community is our main deal,” Howkins says. “Our mission is to save animals, but it’s also to work with the community, especially with education for kids.”
Cheyenne Hardy, a 10-year-old at Barnett Shoals Elementary, works on the farm with her parents every weekend.
“I was wanting to volunteer at an animal shelter over the summer to keep busy,” Hardy says. “My dad found this place, and I really like hanging out with the animals. When I feed them, I get to walk around the whole farm and see them all.”
Many volunteers say the animal sanctuary also provides them a space to escape and reconnect with nature. Caroline Caden is a UGA student majoring in theater and nonprofit management who regularly attends “Baaa-maste Yoga,” one of the farm’s fundraising events, where Howkins opens up the barn for patrons to do yoga surrounded by animals.
“Sweet Olive Farm is a wonderful place for me to press pause,” Caden says. “Kat Howkins does an incredible job taking care of the animals she rescues, and kindly teaches volunteers how to pitch in a hand. Doing animal yoga and donating to their cause is one of my favorite things to do in Athens.”
Howkins says what makes her happiest about the success of her farm is the vast network of like-minded people she has met.
“It’s really stressful, but then it starts coming together,” Howkins says. “I get to meet all these new people, and it’s this really great thing. It’s hard, but it’s so worth it. If you do something you really care about, it’s worth it.”
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