How can a simple conversation between friends result in changing the lives of mountain gorillas, veterinary students, and local Rwandan communities? Ask Michelle Olenick and she’ll tell you. Michelle, a local Los Angeles resident, learned of Gorilla Doctors over lunch with a friend when she was sharing photos from her trip to Africa.  Michelle first went to Rwanda in February 2012 and was lucky enough to climb up to see mountain gorillas in the wild three times on that visit. “I immediately fell in love, I was truly mesmerized and overcome with emotions when I saw them.”

“I did a lot of training for the hikes, around LA, and Aspen, CO.” However, nothing prepared her for her first day of hiking in Rwanda. “It was raining, I had my camera and gear. It was muddy and slippery among the bamboo too.” Michelle continued despite the difficulty and recalls that all of a sudden the park guides were ahead of her and her group. “We turn a corner and hear the rangers go “shhhhhhhhhh” and just a short distance away there was a mother gorilla with her infant in the bamboo. We just sat with them and watched them. The mom was staring at the baby right in her eyes while cradling her and you could just feel the love.”

A photo captured by Michelle during her visit to Rwanda's mountain gorillas.

A photo captured by Michelle during her visit to Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.

Michelle returned home determined to do something and that is precisely what she did. She funded two Gorilla Doctors scholarships for local Rwandan veterinary students who would work with Gorilla Doctors’ team of vets and help in the conservation and research efforts. Those two students became full time Gorilla Doctors veterinarians just weeks ago. Dr. Gaspard is Gorilla Doctors’ newest Field Veterinarian in Rwanda, while Dr. Jean-Claude works as a field veterinarian and lab technician for the PREDICT Rwanda project. While her contribution has greatly impacted both veterinarians’ careers and the future of Gorilla Doctors, Michelle has yet to meet the young vets. “I plan to go back next year, in 2016, to meet them and to see firsthand how much of an impact Gorilla Doctors is having.”

Drs. Gaspard and Jean Claude learn to collect observation data for the IMPACT program during their internship with Gorilla Doctors.

Drs. Gaspard and Jean Claude learn to collect observation data for the IMPACT program during their internship with Gorilla Doctors.

Michelle attended the first Gorilla Love event in Beverly Hills in 2013, where she met Gorilla Directors Co-Directors Drs. Kirsten Gilardi and Mike Cranfield. “Meeting and talking to Kirsten, spending time with her, hearing she and Mike speak and feeling their love for the gorillas…. they exuded passion for these animals.” Michelle already has Gorilla Love 2 on her calendar to attend this year, October 22nd, 2015 at Hinoki & The Bird Restaurant in Los Angeles. It was the Gorilla Love fundraiser that inspired Michelle to give scholarships to veterinary students. “Seeing the work of Gorilla Doctors – some photos at the event of the young vets working with the gorillas – instead of just giving a lump sum, I really wanted to support students to become veterinarians, knowing there would be ongoing support.”

What moved Michelle the most was learning how Gorilla Doctors support the local communities. “That spoke to me a lot. The infrastructure there as far as education needs to be supported. I spent a lot of time in the local communities and seeing the kids with such a sense of pride. Kids would run up to me to bring me flowers. All they would ask for is pens… for school.” Michelle’s generous donation to fund internships for future Gorilla Doctors has not only helped the gorillas, but made a huge impact for the Gorilla Doctors team and our capacity building efforts in Rwanda.

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