Surprisingly, the founder of the animal welfare nonprofit Operation Blankets of Love never had a dog until age 52.
But when Eileen Smulson and her husband Brad adopted a Terrier mix named Ginger in 2003, life changed for everyone involved—plus countless rescue dogs.
“It’s a love story: How a mutt changed my world, and how I help over a thousand (homeless animals) a month with my husband,” Eileen Smulson told The Dog People. “We rescue the rescuers.”
The love story started with Eileen having no idea how to care for a dog—she’d only had a goldfish and a turtle growing up. But her husband is a dog lover who convinced her the first night that Ginger should sleep in their room rather than outside.
By attending dog training classes together, their bond grew exponentially. Ginger became a certified therapy dog and participated in a children’s literacy “Read to a Dog” program at a local library. She also became a personal therapy dog, supporting Eileen through breast cancer treatments.
Shelters in Need of Help
On a rainy day in January of 2008, Eileen found herself in a Southern California animal shelter, where her heart broke to see dogs shivering in their kennels. She couldn’t stop imagining Ginger enduring that. When she asked the kennel manager what was going on and heard there was no budget for blankets, Eileen recalls saying, “Let me see what I can do.”
“I did a collection first with three drop-off locations and I had fifteen within three weeks,” she said.
When Eileen dropped off the new and gently used blankets and towels to the shelter, the manager suggested she help another strapped shelter. More pet stores came onboard as drop-off locations, and the couple’s garage became a storage unit for the cause. Soon she was collecting for every shelter in Los Angeles—and the county.
She realized animal shelters and rescue organizations face a persistent need for funds and supplies, so in 2009, she launched the nonprofit Operation Blankets of Love (OBOL).
Rescuing the Rescuers
Today the organization helps “rescue the rescuers” in myriad ways. As the name suggests, OBOL collects and donates blankets and towels to over 100 animal shelters and over 840 rescue organizations—as well as pet food, dog beds, collars, leashes, toys, veterinary supplies and medications, crates, flea shampoos, and other goods.
“A couple months ago we donated 12 wheelchairs for dogs,” she said. “Now they can run and play.”
Financial support and supplies come from individual donors, companies like Petco, grants, animal hospitals, and even other shelters that have a surplus of donated goods they can’t immediately use. The couple have three vehicles—including one donated by Toyota—and five storage units.
Brad Smulson runs operations for OBOL, which often involves driving to pick up and drop off donations—sometimes hundreds of miles in a day. The couple—married 35 years—works every day, with the help of an assistant and volunteers.
They’re busier than ever.
An Everyday Hustle
“The demand has tripled over the past year, so that means the organization is running that much quicker and faster to pick up as many supplies as possible,” Brad Smulson told The Dog People. “I had 5,000 pounds of supplies and within days it was gone. So that’s the hustle.”
OBOL primarily donates to nonprofits in California and Mexico—including spay/neuter clinics south of the border—but tries to respond to any requests for help. Recently they sent over 30 crates to the Samoan Islands for a spay/neuter campaign, and supported similar projects in in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Belize.
Dogs and cats aren’t the only beneficiaries. Farm animal sanctuaries are increasingly requesting help—particularly pig rescues—so OBOL works to donate extra-large dog houses, comforters, and feed.
“We try to meet the goal and give whatever we have,” he said. “That’s our life.”
The group also brings pet supplies to emergency Red Cross shelters after disasters like earthquakes, wildfires, and hurricanes. Additionally, OBOL works with 80 agencies that serve people experiencing homelessness to help them provide for their pets.
Humane Education Spreads Awareness
Then there’s the humane education element of OBOL. Eileen Smulson began her career as an elementary school teacher, so she’s passionate about teaching children about caring for animals. She and Ginger visited over 5,000 Pre-K to college students together before the sweet dog died at age 15.
Whenever OBOL visits a school—whether an affluent private school or an inner-city public school—the students host a blanket drive.
“Everyone can at least bring me a used towel so they feel part of the solution,” she said.
Over 14,600 students have participated in the Humane Education Learning Program (that’s right: HELP.) Eileen also created a bilingual workbook about caring for dogs and donates numerous copies to children in the United States and Mexico.
She plans to continue her educational outreach with OBOL’s new Humane Education Ambassador, Molly. The Smulsons adopted the Spaniel mix during the pandemic from a rescue organization in Tijuana, Mexico.
Any rescue dog can be an OBOL Animal Ambassador, a free program Eileen created to promote her strong belief that “adoption is the best option.” People submit a photo and short story about their rescue dog, and she shares the story on social media and sends a certificate with the dog’s photo.
“There’s no charge—I just do it so people feel good about rescuing a dog,” she said. “It’s a really fun thing.”
While working for animal welfare on so many fronts is demanding, it’s also rewarding, according to the Smulsons.
“The reward is waking up every day,” Brad Smulson said. “It’s a humbling experience to help both people and pets every day.”
“It’s Amazing What They Do”
Naturally, their help is greatly appreciated by the organizations they support. Steve Spiro, co-founder of the California-based nonprofit Shelter Transport Animal Rescue Team (START), said his organization has worked with Operation Blankets of Love for around 15 years.
START works to save animals at risk of euthanasia through transport—in a retrofitted truck dubbed “The Beast”—from Mexico and Southern California to rescue organizations as far north as Washington State. Nearly 16,000 dogs and cats have been transported to safety by START—which has also funded around 13,000 spay/neuter surgeries.
To support START, OBOL has provided blankets for the crates onboard “The Beast,” collars, leashes, towels, and pee pads. Recently they donated dog beds for a rescue involving over 100 dogs dumped in fields in the city of Bakersfield.
“They were the first people there to help,” Spiro told The Dog People. “Anything that a dog needs, they’ve provided. They’re just good people.”
Eileen Smulson’s cousin Lori Gabay agrees. She’s so impressed by the couple’s dedication to Operation Blankets of Love that she volunteers for the organization and donates a portion of the proceeds of her vegan dog ice cream company, Ice CreamPups, to OBOL.
A few months ago after Brad and Eileen made a supply pickup near her home, they all met for lunch and noticed a homeless man and his dog. Brad dipped into the supplies in the vehicle and gave the man a dog bed, toys, pet food, treats, and two fluffy comforters.
“The guy was so happy, and that’s what it’s all about,” Gabay told The Dog People. “It’s amazing what they do.”
For more information, visit: www.obol.info