When Joanna Copio and her family moved to Lake Norman from Virginia three years ago, she was shocked to discover how many stray animals she saw.
"It was actually kind of shocking," said Joanna, 15, of the River Run neighborhood in Davidson. "A lot of people don't know how many stray and abused animals there are in our community, and I think it's important to make people aware of that."
About 44,000 dogs and cats are euthanized each year, primarily because of overcrowding in shelters, according to the Mooresville nonprofit agency Friends of the Animals.
Feeling compelled to help, the aspiring veterinarian organized the inaugural Pawz Too Run event last year as an eighth-grader at Cannon School. She plans to bring the event back this April.
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"Jane Goodall is like my idol. She inspired me to do things like this and help out in the community," said Joanna.
Pawz Too Run, which included a 5K road race and a dog walk, raised $5,600 for Friends of the Animals. The group hopes to build an animal shelter at the Langtree exit of Interstate 77 within the next several years.
According to initial plans, the shelter could hold 90 dogs and 60 cats at any time. It also would not kill any animal that is healthy and adoptable, and it would have an educational component, said Patrice Reynolds, executive director of Friends of the Animals.
She declined to say how much the project would cost or how much space the new shelter would have.
To help raise more money for the center, Joanna is adding a 10K road race and more pet-related vendors to this year's Pawz Too Run.
The race is also now a part of the Davidson Area Running Team series.
Diane Copio, Joanna's mom, hopes the affiliation will attract more runners to the event.
Last year, about 120 residents participated. The Copios hope more than 300 take part this year.
"I think Joanna learned a lot about planning last year," said Diane. "It makes me very proud of her for her to take such an ambition and want to help. Most kids just don't do things like this."
Joanna said she hopes the event raises not only money, but awareness as well.
For instance, she wants participants to learn about the health benefits of spaying and neutering their pets early.
"It would make their pet happy and healthy, and it would prevent a litter," said Joanna.
She also wants residents to know about all the adoptable animals available at local animal shelters in order to discourage using breeders.
While it will take several years for the organization to raise enough money for the new shelter, Reynolds said, she's thrilled about Joanna's advocacy.
"She's helping to bring visibility to the project," said Reynolds. "She's a marvelous young leader who is excited to make a difference. She's just a remarkable young woman."