Hawkins and his dog, a goldendoodle named Oh Be Joyful, enjoy frequent outdoor activity. | Photos by Andy Brack

It’s fairly safe to say that most school field trips are endured by students, but generally don’t have life-changing impacts. 

Enter Sean Hawkins, then a 16-year-old student near Houston. Being in Texas, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for his class to visit a slaughterhouse. 

“It had a tremendous impact,” recalled Hawkins almost 40 years later. Not only did he become a vegetarian (“It was an ethical decision”) but he gravitated toward a career of helping animals live better lives. Today, he’s chief development officer of the Charleston Animal Society, one of the Lowcountry’s largest and most visible charities.

These days, Hawkins laughs at the memory of becoming a teenaged vegetarian in a home of meat-eaters. 

“As a kid, I didn’t like vegetables. All I ate was mac-and-cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For the first couple of years, I drove my parents crazy.”

Volunteer to pet professional

As a student, Hawkins often volunteered at a Houston-area
animal shelter. 

“I just enjoy dogs and cats,” Hawkins said. “Being a vegetarian, I learned to respect and love other animals as well. I think that every species we share the planet with should be able to live free from harm and suffering.”

In college at the University of Houston, he was hired by author and humanitarian Cleveland Amory to establish dog and cat sterilization clinics across the nation for the Fund for Animals, an affiliate of the Humane Society of the United States. 

By the late 2000s, he was living in Los Angeles, where he developed a still-popular television show, the Hero Dog Awards, with the American Humane Association for the Hallmark Channel. It showcased eight categories of hero dogs in a 2011 media blitz that he said generated 1 billion earned media impressions, 6 million Facebook page views and 600,000 votes from people who love dogs. About the same time, he met Erik Sandoval, a television reporter and anchor today in Orlando. They later married and see each other every two weeks.

Hawkins’ career continued to surge as he became head of the humane society in Santa Barbara, California, in 2017. He set up a structured fundraising program that boosted donated revenue by 150% to $1.5 million and greatly increased adoptions at the shelter.

But when his contract was about to expire, he said he started passively looking for a new challenge that would be closer geographically to his husband. Then came the chance to talk with peers in Charleston. The president and CEO, Joe Elmore, is known nationally for what he’s done at the Charleston Animal Society, Hawkins explained, but he didn’t know Elmore on a personal level. But after four months of interviews, he was offered and accepted the job to be chief development officer.

Working creatively to generate success

Hawkins moved to Charleston in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. He and his dog, Oh Be Joyful, got an apartment in Mount Pleasant and started enjoying runs and play times around the old Pitt Street Bridge and on the beach at Sullivan’s Island.

What Hawkins has most of at home: sand, from his dog’s beach frolicking.

Then came what might be the toughest thing for a fundraiser — the order to stay home and not interact directly with the new people he needed to meet and know to help his organization be successful. 

“I have spent my first 20 months in Charleston in lockdown,” Hawkins said. “I am by nature a very social person. It was really challenging to be in a new community and not be able to go out and meet people.”

But long-time sheltering in place followed by a careful return to the society’s shelter in North Charleston brought a couple of benefits. First, it allowed him and his dog to explore the riches of the area’s outdoors when they just had to get out of the house. Second, it provided the impetus for the creativity to raise money to benefit animals in new ways. For example, the organization’s successful annual in-person chili cookoff went online. It also was packaged with a new rescue brew beer contest in which residents nominated a dog or cat to be the society’s spokesdog and spokescat. The event was a hit — without lots of the upfront costs and risks of a real event — raising about $66,000 in 2020. This year’s recent second contest more than doubled the amount of donations.

Hawkins said he is enjoying — finally — meeting more people throughout the Charleston area.

“I feel as I am just now, 21 months later, starting to benefit from the beauty and nature that Charleston has to offer,” he said. “There is very much a sense of community,” later adding, “This community is incredibly generous.

“I really like it here. It’s been a challenging couple of years for fundraising, but we’ve done OK. Nobody’s done a playbook on fundraising during a pandemic!”

THE LOWDOWN ON SEAN HAWKINS

Age: 54.

Birthplace: Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Education: Studied marketing and business administration at University of Houston. Achieved Certified Animal Welfare Administrator (CAWA) credential in 2017 and Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential in 2021.

Current profession: Chief Advancement Officer at Charleston Animal Society.

Past professions of interest: I’ve been involved with veterinary medicine and animal welfare my whole life.

Family:  Married to Erik Sandoval for 10 years. Erik is a reporter/anchor for CBS/WKMG-TV New 6 in Orlando, Florida. (We commute between Charleston and Orlando — which is better than commuting between Santa Barbara and Orlando). 

Pets: Oh Be Joyful, goldendoodle, 10, and Bandit, a 4-year-old beagle-spaniel mix.

Favorite story about a pet: Both Oh Be (Sean’s Dog) and Bandit (Erik’s dog) were adopted as a result of their previous owners passing away and no family members available to take them.

 Why pets are important to humans:
I believe that companion animals (dogs, cats, other pets) are the connector species between humans and other animals. If a person can develop love and affection for a pet animal, there is not that much of a greater stretch to recognize the importance of the lives of other animals (and the planet). Animals enrich our lives and make us better people. 

Something people would be surprised to learn about you: After working for a nonprofit organization that I founded for 20 years in Houston (the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program), I moved to Los Angeles to run the charitable foundation for the Dog Whisperer television show. That led me to starting my own PR firm
in L.A. — Unleashed Public Relations
— and creating and producing a smash-hit television show — the Hero Dog Awards

Books on the bedside table: Esther the Wonder Pig (Derek Walter and Steve Jenkins), The Ten Trusts (Jane Goodall) and All In (Billie Jean King).

Something that you have too much of at home: Sand (From the dog going to the beach and bringing sand home.)

Favorite food: Vegan mac and cheese.

Hobbies: Bikram yoga and doing things with Oh Be.

Secret vice: Addictions to Schitt’s Creek and The West Wing.

Favorite musicians: Tina Turner, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen.

Favorite dessert: Key Lime Pie (It’s hard to find vegan!).

Favorite cocktail or beverage: Unsweetened iced tea.

Five things you MUST always have in your refrigerator: Iced tea, Pellegrino, garlic, sriracha, jalapenos.

What meal would you want served to you for your last supper: Vegan Tasting Menu at Sorghum & Salt.

Describe your best day in 50 words or less:  My best day would be traveling to the Caribbean (I love the traveling part) and spending the day on a white sandy beach surrounded by warm turquoise water. Preferably having a dog playing with you in the ocean. I would want to spend the night in a beautiful home or small boutique hotel right on the ocean.

Charitable causes: Three organizations that I currently support: Charleston Animal Society, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Lewa Conservancy.

Childhood hero: Jane Goodall.

Your hero now: Michelle Obama.

Three people (alive or dead) you’d like to dine with: Jane Goodall, Ann Richards, Dame Daphne Sheldrick.

Pet peeve: Dogs riding in the back of pick-up trucks and people riding in carriages pulled by horses.

Favorite quote:  “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” —Anne Frank

Philosophy: “No one gets it right every time. But it is in the trying, the learning of lessons, the exchange of kindness, and the celebrating of successes together that the world is made better.”

Your advice for someone new to Charleston: Get outside! 

Your advice for better living: Quit eating animals.