Search Dog Founder Earns Purpose Prize

By Nao Braverman
Wilma Melville, founder of the Ojai-based National Disaster Search Dog Foundation never underestimates the lifesaving potential of a mutt.
Now it’s her turn to be recognized for her rescuing work as she proudly accepts a $100,000 Purpose Prize award from the nonprofit group Civic Ventures, an organization serving older adults with a passion for service.
The $9 million program awards 10 $10,000 prizes to social innovators over the age of 60 and $100,000 each to five exceptional nominees, including Melville.
“I never won a raffle and here comes $100,000,” she said.
Unlike a lucky raffle ticket, however the Purpose Prize was an award hard-earned through Melville’s dedicated efforts to help dogs and people around the world.
A retired physical education teacher, mother and grandmother of four, Melville jump started the SDF in her mid-60s at an age when most people are slowing down.
It was a heart-wrenching but motivating trip in 1995 that planted the seed in Melville’s mind. She took her own trained dog to help rescue people from the wreckage after the Oklahoma bombings. It was then that she first saw how efficient the dogs were at finding buried victims and decided to start an organization of her own to train them.
Melville learned that some dogs were more suited to the task than others, mainly the energetic overzealous ones, always looking for something to do. Many such dogs, she discovered, could be found at shelters. She became expert at pairing the right dog with the right person and began fostering the development of a number of incredible search teams across the country through her organization.
Since its inception 11 years ago, the foundation’s search teams have helped rescue victims of numerous national disasters including the tragedy of September 11 and Hurricane Katrina.
But through it all, the organization’s staff has been commuting between a dog training facility in Gilroy, a handler’s dog training class in Camarillo and the Signal Street foundation headquarters.
With more than 160 advance search teams around the country now, the SDF has been planning the development of their own local training center.
Melville’s $100,000 prize will go toward kicking off the initial plans for the new center.
“It’s a very small start for a $15 million training center,” she said humbly. “But it will allow us to move forward on that.”
Foundation members recently found a perfect plot off Highway 126 between Santa Paula and Ventura in Wheeler Canyon. Less than a mile from a 40-acre parcel generously donated by the McGrath family, the plot is being purchased with money from the sale of the originally donated parcel, said Melville.
“The training center will allow us to have handlers come to our center from around the country get advanced training,” she said.
Named one of the 15 Purpose Prize finalists in late June, Melville discovered that she will be one of five other innovators to receive $100,000 out of more than 1,000 nominees.
Other final recipient seniors from around the country have started programs that save the lives of newborns, help keep foster home siblings together, integrate arts in academic curriculums, and improve the healthcare industry.
Finalists were selected by a team of accomplished leaders in journalism, politics, business and nonprofit, actor Sidney Poitier, Harvard professor and former presidential adviser David Gergen, and author Gloria Steinem among them.
SDF trainer Rick Lee heard abut the Purpose Prize and immediately thought to nominate Melville.
She will join other winners at the Stanford Center for Innovation for an innovation summit in November.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting the other finalists,” she said.

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