“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching,” said basketball coach John Wooden.
No one was watching on December 18, 2020, when Keith Walker was walking by The W-Underdogs, an Atlanta-area organization that works with at-risk youth, teaching them animal-rescue skills. Noticing it was on fire—and knowing animals were inside—Walker rushed in.
Walker, a dog lover himself, told CNN, “I was nervous as hell, I’m not going to lie. I was really scared to go in there with all that smoke. But God put me there to save those animals. If you love a dog, you can love anyone in the world. My dog is my best friend, and I wouldn’t be here without him, so I knew I had to save all those other dogs.”
Walker’s heroic actions have become newsworthy and his story has gone viral. But most importantly six dogs and 10 cats were saved because of the selflessness of Walker, 53, who has been homeless since he was 13.
Grace Hamlin, founder of The W-Underdogs, lived in the home that doubled as the organization’s facility. She has known Walker for some time. He lives in the area and she has offered him odd jobs over the years while also providing food and overnight shelter for his dog, Bravo.
We requested an interview with Walker but he was unavailable, so we spoke with Victoria Stilwell, dog behavior expert and advisory board member of The W-Underdogs.
“Walker was on his way to the center to see his dog, and he noticed smoke coming out of the kitchen window,” Stilwell said. Upon seeing the fire he told his friend, Mike, to call 911. That’s when Walker sprang into action to save the animals. The fire department and Fulton County Animal Services showed up soon after.
Walker was able to safely rescue all the animals from the burning home, and the fire department was able to extinguish the fire. The rest of the structure was saved but was uninhabitable, which also left Hamlin without a home.
The structure is old so they were lucky that what turned out to be an electrical fire did not spread faster, especially since there were two dogs in the kitchen. The dogs are larger ones that the organization has had for a long time. “They are much loved and adored by everybody who meets them, including the kids,” Stilwell said. “If the fire department hadn’t put out the fire and if Keith hadn’t seen the fire and got his friend to call 911, those dogs would have perished.”
“I can’t thank him enough for saving my animals,” Hamlin told CNN. “I’m still in disbelief, because I’ve been around a fire and I know how fast they flare up. He is my hero.”
Former veteran Hamlin founded The W-Underdogs six years ago as a grassroots organization to empower youth through animal rescue. “Part of that is teaching compassion and empathy not just toward animals but to your fellow human,” Stilwell said. “Grace wanted to be able to give these kids something to do, get them off the streets, and give them a skill. What better way than by helping her with the dogs.” The youth organization also teaches children leadership skills and about self-esteem.
Stilwell met Hamlin at a seminar four years ago in Atlanta. Stilwell was very impressed after learning about Hamlin’s mission. “I thought, ‘How can I help using my skills to help with the dogs?’ Plus, I’m passionate about helping kids,” Stilwell said. It was a natural fit. Stilwell has been helping with rescue and with outreach as well.
After receiving a phone call, Stilwell drove down the night of the fire to help relocate the animals. “I was shocked,” she said. “I came down with my van and we loaded some cats and one of our big pit bulls named Batman into the vehicle. I didn’t know Batman very well but he was just so worried. I just talked to him and stroked him on the chest telling him it’s going to be OK. He put his paw on my arm.”
Thankfully, Walker was not injured during the rescue, and none of the animals needed medical attention. The animals were transported to another building, one that was previously donated to The W-Underdogs for a period of two years. They originally were scheduled to move into that building in the beginning of January but were able to get in sooner since they had the keys.
The W-Underdogs team sprang into action immediately setting up different areas so that community members could drop off blankets and other much-needed items because many supplies were destroyed in the fire. People brought blankets and food for the animals, too. “It just shows that when something like that happens, you give to the community, but the community then gives back,” Stilwell said. Afterward, volunteers came by during the week to help with the animals and to walk the dogs.
A hero’s badge is not something Walker is likely to wear. He’s a man who Stilwell describes as humble and who doesn’t want or ask for much; he just wants to be with his dog Bravo when he can. “I think that says a lot about Keith Walker,” Stilwell said. “He mustered the courage to do it because he loves animals and he also wanted to give back to Grace. He probably thought, ‘If I don’t do it, nobody else is here, and they’ll die.’ ”
“When things like this happen, the best of human behavior comes out and it reminds you that the majority of people are good and kind and giving,” Stilwell added. “I think that’s what experiences like this truly teach you.”
Since the fire, The W-Underdogs has verified one GoFundMe page for Keith Walker. As stated on The W-Underdogs Facebook page, “Rest assured we have Mr. Walker’s best interests at heart, and are exploring how to best manage donations that have come in on his behalf.” If you would like to help Keith Walker, please donate here.
Update: We have received a flood of requests on how people can help Mr. Keith Walker, the hero who saved our animals…
Hamlin, who was left without a home, has been able to find temporary accommodations and “will be fine,” Stilwell said.
If you would like to help The W-Underdogs continue its mission, you can donate here.