When the Charleston Animal Society faced a massive scandal after years of high kill rates in the shelter, it might have been the end of the line. Thanks to the courage to recognize and act on its Aha! Moments, the organization and the community it serves have never been more in sync, and the animals have never been better off.

Before getting to the part about the hot firefighters, think about your own Aha! Moments. We’ve all had them; they’re those instances of clarity and inspiration that hit us almost as if out of nowhere, when we suddenly see a connection, a path forward, a new way of doing things where before we only saw confusion and doubt. Maddie’s Fund® has been working to help animal organizations and advocates experience, recognize and implement their own Aha! Moments since launching a series of Maddie Talks at HSUS Animal Care Expo on May of 2016.

One of those talks was given by Joe Elmore, president of the Charleston Animal Society and Maddie Hero. It involves embezzlement, mistrust, and sexy firefighters. And if that’s not intriguing enough, it also involves the transformation of a Deep South shelter with a sky-high euthanasia rate deciding, in the wake of disaster, to stop the killing and save all their community’s healthy and treatable pets — hand in hand with the residents of that community.

In his talk, Elmore described how, in December of 2011, the organization learned its longtime president and pillar of the community turned out to have been stealing money for years. The chief executive position had long been a revolving door, and there was none in place at that time. The organization was unstable. The community was mistrustful, and rightly so.

Instead of trying to avoid taking responsibility for the embezzlement and the organization’s problems, the leadership decided to step up. “Why spend months or years arguing over whether the organization was culpable?” said Elmore. “So we owned it. Not only did our community stand by us, but the support grew. It went out the roof.”

That summer, as the usual flood of animals came into the shelter, they were still struggling to find a new footing. “It was May. We had high euthanasia rate, and June was looking worse. We still had a fragile relationship with our community on the heels of our scandal.” In 142 years, he said, the shelter had never turned away an animal. They were an open admission shelter in the Deep South. What would happen to their relationship with the community if they went into June as they had in the past 142 years and killed many animals? Would the community turn on them for good?

“We did a gut check,” he said. “We drew a line in the sand, and threw a bat signal up in the sky.” They launched a massive advertising campaign, waived adoption fees, and begged the community to lend a hand. “We never threatened euthanasia of those animals,” he said. “We just said help, we’re drowning. Please make room for one more.”

The community responded, adopting every animal in the shelter. “That was our turning point,” said Elmore. “We stood up to the bully of euthanasia and punched it right in the face. No more, no more!”

Elmore’s next step was raising money to fund their new dedication to a No-Kill Charleston. One staffer suggested a calendar, which he initially dismissed as “so 20th Century.” No, the staffer said, not that kind of calendar. A risque calendar, with sexy firefighters.

At first, Elmore was afraid the “blue-blooded” older ladies who made up his board would hate the idea, but he forged ahead. The first calendar was a huge success. The second made $600,000 and was shipped to every continent on the planet. Next year’s calendar is expected to pull in over $1 million.

What were Elmore’s “Aha! Moments”?

1. With each risk they took with their community behind them, whether the outcome was good or bad, they gained the confidence to go forward.

2. In their 142 year history, their community support was greatest when their backs were against the wall and they came out fighting for the animals.

3. Their community was probably ready to support them all along, but they didn’t give them a chance.

4. People support winners, not whiners.

5. The power of believing in someone is unmatched by anything in this world.

“Take risks,” Elmore said. “Make your risks bolder. And your community will get you where you want to be.”

View Elmore’s complete talk below (it’s only 12 minutes long), and stay with us for more Aha! Moments from shelters and rescue groups around the country!