At 4 years old, Roman McConn knew one thing, that he wanted to help save dogs. Something struck him when he and his mother were outside of a PetSmart in San Angelo, Texas, in June of 2015 where Critter Shack Rescue was there with adoptable dogs needing homes.
“It was very sad,” Roman said. “I knew immediately from when I saw them in the cages in the baking hot sun that I wanted to get them out.”
It didn’t make sense to him. “His 4-year-old mind was asking, ‘Why are these dogs here?’” said Jen McConn, Roman’s mother. “I said, ‘They need homes.’ And he then said, ‘What’s the problem? Get them a home.’”
It was then that Roman decided that for his 4th birthday he wanted to collect donations for the rescue instead of receiving gifts. His selfless gesture helped raised $200. “Every single dollar went to the shelter,” he said.
“I guess I really had no choice but to like dogs because I’ve been with dogs my entire life,” Roman said. When he was born there were two dogs in the home. “I always counted them as family,” he said. “They are my brothers and sister or my cousins.”
So, it didn’t make sense to Roman when he saw the dogs in cages. “I thought the money would help them find homes.”
And that was just the beginning of an adventurous mission that took him and his mother to help save countless dogs from death row.
After they donated the money to the rescue, McConn saw a photo in her Facebook feed of a dog at San Angelo Animal Services, the city’s high-kill shelter. The dog resembled one that the family had lost a few years prior. It brought McConn and her husband, Roman’s father Jeff, into the shelter, exposing them to hundreds of kennels of dogs. And it was overwhelming.
She and her husband adopted the dog in the photo and named her Luna, who had been at the shelter three times. “That was when we decided that we needed to do more,” McConn said.
“Helping is not easy but once I was exposed to everything there, not helping was no longer an option. As hard as it was for me it wasn’t about me, it was about the dogs living in that environment. I put my feelings aside and did what needed to be done.”
They started visiting the shelter on a regular basis and making videos to help get the dogs more exposure. One of the first questions people asked was whether particular dogs were kid-friendly. It was then that McConn discussed with Roman about helping at the shelter. “I was all aboard the ship to go save dogs,” Roman said.
McConn then started bringing Roman. But by the time she brought him, the shelter no longer allowed anyone to walk the kennels. Instead, the dogs were brought to the visitation room to hang out with Roman. He’d play and they’d make a video featuring Roman talking about the dog.
In early 2016, McConn and Roman raised $10,000 in two months simply by asking for donations. “There was no organizational structure to the process at all,” McConn said.
They raised the money through McConn’s social media channels and used it to cover adoptions and hosted adoption events. They also helped other rescues in the area with events and fundraising.
By June of 2016, the McConns moved to Washington state. McConn’s husband, who serves in the Navy, was deployed to Japan.
“There was not the same need in Washington shelters and our hearts wanted to still help in Texas,” McConn said. “We knew we needed to help the Texas dogs.” The idea was to transfer dogs from the high-kill shelters in Texas and bring them to no-kill rescues in Washington.
The rescues could cover required vetting expenses but transport was too much money. McConn’s idea was to bridge the gap and cover that expense.
In December 2016, they collected donations and raised enough money to hire a transport company that would bring 31 dogs from Texas to Washington, specifically working with rescues in Tacoma and Burlington.
They were not a rescue and they were not a transport company. But what they were doing was connecting unwanted dogs (and some cats) who were slated for euthanasia in high-kill shelters to no-kill rescues, humane societies, and families.
The project needed a name and they came up with Project Freedom Ride because the dogs literally were taking their freedom ride. “It was cut and dry what our mission was,” McConn said.
The first official transport from Texas to Washington was on Dec. 6, 2016.
McConn didn’t want to be a 501 (c) (3). She and Roman just wanted to help dogs, but in order to protect everything she created, McConn filed paperwork last summer and is waiting for nonprofit status to be completed.
While McConn founded Project Freedom Ride, Roman has basically become the familiar face of the videos that feature adoptable dogs.
“Roman has always been very empathetic, compassionate and a driven child from early on,” McConn said. “He is learning at a very young age that his actions can change something. We’ve always told him that he has the ability to make his world better than ours but he has to do something. He can’t wait for other people to do it. I think he is starting to realize his actions not only are changing things for dogs but his actions are inspiring other people to get involved. That’s pretty big for somebody who is only 7.”
Not only has Roman inspired others to help save dogs, but he was also acknowledged by the ASPCA. In 2018, Roman received the ASPCA Tommy P. Monahan Kid of the Year Award and gave a speech at the Humane Awards Luncheon on Nov. 15, 2018 in New York City.
“I was very surprised but I felt what I had done was helpful to dogs,” Roman said.
Jeff also gets involved when he’s home, which is now in Georgia. He sometimes goes to the shelters or helps by holding down the fort at home when McConn and Roman are out getting things done for Project Freedom Ride. The family’s own pack currently includes Luna, Ru (who is deaf) and Zion, all of whom are rescues from Texas.
The future for Project Freedom Ride looks very promising. They are working with The Dodo to expand their mission, which includes a global TV project that will air later this year. “We have a feeling 2019 will bring a lot of good change for us,” McConn said. “We didn’t know we’d be where we are now.”
Project Freedom Ride is 100 percent donation-driven. To date, it has helped transport 1,400 dogs and 50 cats. “We can’t do it without the thousands upon thousands of people who believe in what we’re doing,” McConn said. “People always ask what is Project Freedom Ride, and I tell them it’s a community of people who have rallied behind this young boy’s desire to save dogs.”
And that also includes Roman’s idea that everyone should know that animals need help and people should always adopt. “They deserve more than a life in a kennel,” he said. “I want every rescue and shelter dog to be adopted.”
Check out Roman on The Ellen Show!
Featured Image: Project Freedom Ride