During a rock climbing session at his local gym, Alexander Tsao gazed at the rope that was keeping him secured 40 feet off the ground and suddenly had a thought: What happened to the ropes when they started to fray?

Tsao, then 16, asked the owners of the climbing gym, who told him that they inspect the ropes weekly and replace them when they age out or show wear. He also learned that the ropes were usually discarded.

Tsao was surprised at the waste. He had a vision of his labradoodle rescue dog, Jinger, and thought that the ropes would make a sturdy leash for his loyal pooch. Then he thought about all the animals in shelters near his home in Redmond, Wash. And he came up with an idea.

He started collecting piles of ropes from gyms that would otherwise throw them away. He then attached some hardware, turned the ropes into dog leashes and put them up for sale, starting at $14.99 each. He used the money he got to make more leashes and continued to sell them.

After creating a website in 2019, he began offering the colorful leashes through his online store and at a few in-person events, donating all profits to local no-kill animal shelters and animal charities.

So far, Tsao, now 18, has sold around 800 leashes — plus other merchandise such as T-shirts — and has donated more than $30,000 to animal shelters and food banks with the profits.

“Supporting animals is meaningful to me and that’s what really motivates me,” said Tsao, who named his project Rocks2Dogs and turned it into a nonprofit.

Tsao, a recent graduate of Redmond High School, has gotten the word out to several independent climbers and seven climbing gyms in Washington state that now regularly donate retired ropes to his cause. Every few months, after area gyms have accumulated a large batch, Tsao and a group of volunteers pick them up.

“We want to support young climbers, especially ones working on a great cause,” said Brad Szlezak, operations manager for Stone Gardens, a climbing gym in Bellevue, Wash., that donates ropes to Tsao.

When he first started Rocks2Dogs, Tsao donated a few hundred dollars to Old Dog Haven, a nonprofit organization that provides permanent foster homes for unadoptable and abandoned senior dogs. The organization used the contribution for veterinary expenses.

“He contacted us (handwritten letter) and asked how he could help,” said Ardeth De Vries, executive director of Old Dog Haven in Oak Harbor, Wash., in an email. “I’m so impressed with Alexander’s presentation … not only of himself but of his work and passion.”

Making each leash takes time and attention to detail, so he relies on help from Rocks2Dogs volunteers, most of whom he’s recruited from his neighborhood and community. They measure and hand wash the ropes twice (once with soap and the second time with water) and let them dry. Then students from his high school help assemble the leashes, measuring and cutting the ropes into lengths ranging from four to 10 feet, and sometimes longer.

After burning the ends on the stove to prevent fraying, they use pliers and a press to secure each leash’s handle and clip with metal clamps. They cover the clamps with shrink wrap, package the orders, and mail them out to customers who ordered on the website.

“When people purchase our leashes, they are overjoyed about not only receiving a quality product for their pet but that they are also contributing to animal shelters and the environment,” said Tsao. “I have been overwhelmed by all of the positive messages that I have received.”

His family has contributed to his efforts by helping him navigate setting up his 501(c)(3), obtaining his trademark registration, and guiding him on filing taxes.

“This was a crash course in how to go from a product idea to starting and running a real-world business,” his parents, Anson and Joyce Tsao, said in a joint email. “Even as a high school student, through perseverance and creativity, he can make a difference to his community by bringing together people and businesses.”

An avid climber for six years, Alexander is one of approximately 9.89 million climbers in the United States. According to a survey conducted by the Climbing Wall Association, about 61 climbing gyms are projected to open this year or later in the United States, ensuring a steady supply of raw materials ready to be upcycled into leashes.

At the start of the pandemic, Tsao pivoted from donating to animal shelters to contributing his proceeds to food banks, saying he was attuned to the needs of people facing food insecurity and unemployment. He organized a fundraiser, which involved selling leashes to benefit the Redmond Food Box Program, Hopelink and Northwest Harvest.

After being featured in three interviews in the local news, he expanded his reach, increased his customer base, and raised $23,000.

“It was something else that I cared a lot about after volunteering at the local food bank called Hopelink for over seven years now,” said Tsao.

He is now transitioning back to donating profits to local animal shelters and charities.

He sells the vast majority of the leashes through his online store, along with hoodies and T-shirts with the Rocks2Dogs logo. Inspired by his dog, who is now 11, Tsao hopes to expand into producing other sustainable pet products such as dog collars, clothing and pet harnesses.

This summer, he and several Rocks2Dogs volunteers will continue making and delivering their leashes for bulk and online orders and for their local retail partners, which include businesses that cater to pets, as well as a general store.

In the fall, Tsao plans to attend McGill University in Montreal. While he’s away, he’ll still try to manage his nonprofit remotely. Over the past few years of running Rocks2Dogs, he has built a strong community of friends, volunteers and neighbors. He hopes his supporters will help him continue to upcycle the ropes and donate the profits to various charities. He also wants to seek out opportunities to expand his nonprofit business into Canada.

“It’s important to determine what you’re passionate about and what inspires you to make a difference,” said Tsao. “Bringing together different groups of people to support a common cause can make a huge impact.”

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