Mila Graf, a junior at Jackson High School, loves animals. It’s a love she puts into action through fostering animals with the Humane Society of Southeast Missouri and volunteering at Watkins Wildlife Rehab in Sedgewickville, Mo. She also makes custom jewelry and donates the proceeds to the organization.
Graf says her love for animals began at a young age; her family always had dogs and cats as pets, and she also had ducks and bunnies when she was younger. When she was four or five years old, she wanted to be a veterinarian, a desire that persisted throughout her childhood. When her mom started fostering animals and then got involved at Watkins Wildlife Refuge, Graf says she also decided to help out. Through her experiences volunteering with these organizations for the past two years, her love for animals has grown.
Now, she has two geckos of her own: Larry, a leopard gecko she’s had for almost three years, and Roosevelt, who is a month old. She is also fostering a cat that is pregnant.
“A lot of people in the world just don’t care anymore,” she says. “And there’s just a lot of circumstances where animals are hurt, and people look down on animals that they’re not like a person. But I think my thing is, I always try to look at animals like they’re human. I really like to help them out.”
Graf says two of her favorite fostering experiences have been when she fostered opossums, which she says are her “favorite,” and the first time she fostered a squirrel.
Over the summer, her meemaw gave her some glass beads that were Graf’s mother’s when she was in high school. Graf began making jewelry with them for fun, wearing it herself and giving it to her friends. Then, she decided to start selling her jewelry on Instagram. It’s a project she’s maintained, and she donates the proceeds from each piece to Watkins Wildlife Rehab.
In the future, Graf plans to study zoology or conservation; she says she also loves plants and would find learning about them interesting.
She says working with animals has shaped how she lives her life, and that because of these experiences, she tries to help animals and people.
“I’ve just learned how to be more kind and understanding in a lot of situations,” Graf says.
She hopes her peers also seize opportunities to help in their communities. Young people, she says, can make a real difference.
“I think adults should know that a lot of young people do a lot of work with community, and they think just because they’re older and kids [who] are teenagers are younger, they just don’t tend to think we know as much,” Graf says. “But a lot of time, we’re really helping, and we know a lot more than what they think.”