As the founder of a nationally operating charity dedicated to veterans and last-chance shelter pets, I’m not in the habit of talking about myself. Yet I’ve been asked ‘Why did you start Pets for Patriots?’ more times than I can count, so I’ve decided to share my story in the hopes that it might help those Pets for Patriots was founded to serve.
The simple truth is that I never imagined I would someday be running a nonprofit organization, much less starting one from scratch during what will be remembered as the worst economic recession of our day. I’m not one of those people you read or hear about who always longed to change the world, or change anything for that matter. Usually I’m just trying to get through the day.
My parents raised me and my siblings to be kind to others, help those in need and be productive members of society. Higher education was a given, and we were all expected to attend graduate school. I earned my Master of Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University (a “Mellon Head”), which satisfied my competing analytical and creative selves. I practiced in the field for about 10 years before I had a nagging sense that something was missing.
After nearly two years of interviewing people who did all sorts of fascinating things and while still working in architecture, I transitioned into branding and strategic marketing. It felt right for a few years, until one day it didn’t. Yearning to be free of a job and go out on my own, I started a business strategy firm. On day one I had no clients and no prospects, but worked brutally hard to change that reality.
Eventually I had great clients and most years made a nice, though never extravagant living. I could pay my bills, have a few dollars left over for a rainy day and generally enjoyed my work, which involved a lot of complex problem solving, client interaction, creative strategy and – most of all – a sense of freedom over my own time and destiny. Life was good.
Of dogs and dreams
As a child I remember two distinct dreams for my future self: to save all the homeless animals in the country – somehow acquiring oodles of land where they would live out their days in stressless splendor – and to be a writer. The Great American Novel kind of writer. It’s wonderful to be young and have dreams that your adult self would consider positively ludicrous.
Growing up, our family always adopted shelter pets – dogs, specifically; all of us are cat allergic – and we were the better for it.
Rex used to lie under the shade of an overhanging bush on the front lawn while we little ones played. A big, beautiful tri-color collie, he loved everyone except the mailman (aka postal carriers today). Skipper was a regal, silver-haired German Shepherd with delightful radar-like ears, who figured out how to open the front door the day we brought him home from the shelter. And Dustin. A mutt full of love and moxie; always happy, and with a special fondness for rocks that he would find in the backyard and sneak into the house. He got used to us telling him to “drop it” when he came indoors, and started putting two in his mouth, dropping one and then playing hockey with the other in the downstairs hall once he thought no one was paying attention.
It was during these years I found my inner entrepreneur.
When I was 12 I started a dog walking business. My father donated the $11.56 to print a few hundred oversized business cards which I dutifully put in every mailbox in the neighborhood. Already a known quantity – I had since taken over my older brother’s paper route – I picked up customers who were thrilled to leave their pets at home in lieu of boarding them. No doubt my fees had something to do with their calculus: 25 cents a walk and one dollar for a full day, which included three walks and dinner. While I was at it I took in the mail and watered thirsty plants.
I couldn’t believe people would actually pay me for something I loved and would have done for free, if asked. That first summer I made the most gratifying $75 of my young life. But I never got the oodles of land to save our country’s shelter pets, and the Great American Novel remains unwritten. At least by me.
The day that changed my world
One day I had an epiphany. My life hasn’t been the same since.
It was Memorial Day 2009. My mother and her then companion Charles, a WWII veteran and B-17 belly gunner, had just been over to my place for a barbecue. While washing the dishes, where I’m ashamed to admit I get my best ideas, that voice inside my head that we all have when talking to ourselves said, “pets and veterans.”
I felt a little shudder. Instantly I knew what I was saying to myself.
There are two populations with complimentary needs: shelter pets in desperate need of a loving, permanent home, and veterans who – for a variety of life circumstances – could be equally saved through the love of a companion pet. I had no idea what to do next, but I knew I had to start doing it right away.
I crafted a business plan and shared it with about a dozen super smart people I knew through my more than 25 years in business. Each added knowledge and a perspective different from my own, and the result was a good enough plan to start Pets for Patriots in earnest. I solicited a Board of Directors that was equal part governance and moral support. With the help of a great pro bono legal team, we applied for and were awarded our 501(c)(3) status in a zippy six weeks. My dearest friends designed and donated our magnificent logo, and other friends donated our first website.
I’m forever grateful to my dentist for being our very first donor; $100 that squeaked in during the closing days of 2009. We officially launched our site in early January 2010 and were open for business. In truth I still didn’t really know what that would mean. Like most entrepreneurs, I was flying a little blind with not much more than a vision, some smarts and a little grit.
And so it begins
While I had never worked in or managed a nonprofit organization before, I structured and ran it much like a business. In the end, if you don’t bring in more than you send out, you don’t get to do whatever it is you do for very long. It’s fundamentally that simple; the rest are details.
Those first several months were lonely, but energizing at the same time. I approached this challenge much as I had several years before in starting my consulting practice: no money in the bank, no prospects on the horizon, but 12-14 hour days of hard work to get our fledgling charity off the ground. I was driven and dispirited, exhilarated and exhausted – all at the same time.
It was late July 2010 before we had our first honorable adoption. A cat named Diamond to a Navy veteran in Indiana. We were officially on the map, and closed the year with no more than a handful of additional adoptions, including one to a three-tour Iraq war veteran named Mario, with whom we remain friends to this day.
A prayer answered
As a small, grassroots charity, raising money is always tough.
In the business world, you provide a good or service and get paid. In the nonprofit world, you provide a good or service – over and over and over again – and hope that people recognize your work with a donation. It was and remains one of the most difficult things for me to wrap my head around, but I have learned that first comes the love, then the money. Or so we hope.
It was early 2013 when we received a letter that Pets for Patriots was one of several beneficiaries of the estate of a late Navy veteran. We had no record of him ever contacting us, and Googling his name didn’t turn up anything either. I filed the letter and didn’t give it much thought.
Several months later I was having a rare moment of doubt. It felt like we were always just getting by, and the demand for our life-saving program was only growing. It was supremely stressful, and raising money is not for the faint of heart. As I do every night I prayed, though this time for a sign that I was doing what G-d intended for me to do. I had never asked him that before.
The next day, which happened to be the day after the one-year anniversary of Charles’ passing, I opened the mail. In it is an overnight package from the executor of the Navy veteran’s estate telling us that he left nearly half a million dollars to Pets for Patriots.
Pretty big sign. I’m convinced that Charles had something to do with that package arriving when it did, too.
I have since learned quite a bit about our mysterious donor, named Daniel, like how he played tennis every day for more than 40 years and was buried in his 20 year-old Lexus.
Saving lives through companion pet adoption
We continue to receive extraordinary demand for our life-saving program, and have attracted a sizable following, including the many good folks who fund our mission and work. We’ve been able to offer part-time work to two of our long-term volunteers, including one who is a Marine Corps Vietnam combat veteran, and are building new and exciting partnerships around the country.
One such budding partnership actually has a lot to do with why I decided to write this. My gratitude to Jason McCarthy, a post-9/11 Green Beret veteran and founder of GORUCK, for urging me to share.
And then there is mom.
Every day my mother, Naomi – who has championed Pets for Patriots from the first night I shared the idea with her and Charles over dinner – asks how many adoptions we have. As one of our original volunteers, she helps in ways big and small, though these days she’s legally blind so most of her help is in the moral support department. She herself has since adopted a senior dog, to whom I am a proud co-parent. Bunny is our director of canine and kitty causes, though in truth she naps most of the time.
I’m grateful for having found my true calling, and for doing work that is soulful and important. Still, I’m just a person trying to get through the day.
Where it matters most, we have incredible success stories of veterans who share how their honorably adopted dog or cat has turned their lives around. It feels only fitting to let them know how they have forever changed mine.
I’m amazed at how your story unfolds and the success you have in doing something you love and is so needed by both pets and Patriots! I’m the proud pet parent of a rescue dog named Honey Bear from Adoption Center of Salt Lake City, Utah. I contacted Kathy King at Canines With A Cause to get the dog training needed for her to qualify as a service dog. Which after a few months off fighting my depression I”ve restarted those classes so I can keep her with me at places like US Forestry Parks and water shelter areas in Little Cotton Wood Canyon where I go a lot. She is a beautiful white and brown boxer with speckled ears and a beautiful face. The whole year I have had her I have taken her every where I go, and only once or twice have I even been challenged. I ‘m blessed that she has a very quiet temperament and very well behaved. Every one in my apt. building loves her and 99% of those she meets love her. She is the reason to get out of bed many days.
The few times I have been challenged, I simply said she is in training and had no problem. Canines With A Cause is the reason I could keep her. Two weeks after I got her we found out she needed immediate eye surgery to patch holes in her iris on both eyes which were leaking fluid. She had a eye infection in one eye when I brought her home. It was $3400.00 for one eye and $3600.00 on the other and I had no way to pay for it but they did, plus 5 rotten teeth had to be pulled. That was another $600.00 with out them I would have lost her right off the bat. The Lord in deed does move in mysterious ways….
I love and appreciate your efforts which was the catalyst for Canines with A Cause, all the way out to Salt Lake City,Utah !!
My best regards and best wishes on your nomination. Please let me know what I can do to help.
Oh my gosh! Such a poignant story that reaches our heart and soul. I miss my connection with Pets for Patriots but a strong advocate always! Thank you for sharing this beautiful story and changing the lives of so many pets and veterans!
I have a rescue dog, who is also a comfort dog. I am an Air Force widow. Before he died, my husband of 57 years became verbally & physically abusive. I have PTSD which my comfort dog helps me with. She is a Dashound/Jack Russell mix, but very gentle with me. She loves giving kisses and knows how to make me feel better. My husband did not have any life insurance and did not take survivor benefit because he was going to out live me. So we are trying to survive on Social Security and two small retirements. I worked as an RN for 50 years. But I moved about with my husband for 23 years before he retired. Sommer is so good for me & saves me lots of tears. She was scheduled to be euthanized the day after I adopted her.
Hi Beth, I’m so glad I happened to be in brand and strategic marketing at the same time it “felt right for a few years” for you. I consider those years I had the chance to work with you as the best I had in that profession. Thank you.
And now thank you for Pets for Patriots. Knowing that you have the job you were meant to be in, one you created out of love, one that provides such comfort and meets such a need for people and pets alike, is so wonderful. I’m at a loss for words (hard to imagine, I know).
Beth, you are amazing! Congratulations!
Thank you for sharing your story. And *thank you* for the great work that you and P4P are doing on behalf of veterans and pets alike! In your way, you are making a great difference in the lives of many. I hope you’ll be able to continue your great work for many, many years to come! Best regards, AJ & RIley from Canandaigua NY
Beth, thanks for sharing your story. It gives me more great information to share when I talk to people about my opportunity to work in the partnership between your organization and the Michigan Humane Society. It is wonderful to be able to do something with your life that you really enjoy and that has such a positive impact on others, both people and animals. I hope you have many more years of success, and that you continue to enjoy each one.
Dear Beth I was so touched right from the beginning & remain in awe of this wonderful organization you have formed to help what I believe are the 2 most abandoned groups in our society. I am a volunteer at a local humane society where I see abandoned animals euthanized on an almost daily basis just because we don’t have the room or resources to find them all a home. I would love to somehow reach your organization & work out a plan to help us both. I am in Florida & we have so many veterans in the area I know it would help us both.
Joann, thanks for your kind words, but most of all for the important work you do on behalf of animals in need. Please get in touch with us at http://www.petsforpatriots.org/contact-us/ with your shelter’s URL (web address), so we can evaluate the area to see if we think a partnership may be successful there.
I have been a supporter for many years, and now I know why I was drawn to Pets for Patriots – I too had the exact same dream of buying as much land as I possibly could and emptying every shelter I could get to.
Combine that with my utmost love and respect for our military, and we have the very best charity I could ever hope to support.
Thank you for sharing your story.
Shannon, how sweet of you to share. Sounds like we have twin passions. Always knew there were other folks like me in the world and glad to have “met” you.
Some of my best thinking comes from washing the dishes as well. I think because no matter where I’ve lived there has always been a window to gaze out of at the same time. You have found your passion, not so many of us can say that about ourselves. Thanks much.
Mary, how nice to meet another “creative” dishwasher! I can’t even say that my sink looks out towards a window, but for me there’s something liberating about mundane chores. Go figure! Many thanks for your kind words and support.
Thank you for sharing your story Beth. I love it. It makes Pets for Patriots all that much more special to me.
P.S. I’m going to look at washing dishes in a whole new way. You are clearly on to something!
Thanks, Susan… Never underestimate the power of dull housework!
Beth, this blog post brought me to tears. I am so impressed by your passion and desire to create such a wonderful organization. I too, am struggling with my role in this world and have had many conversations of late with God about how to make a difference. I admire the fact that you just DID it! What a Blessing Daniel was to give you the Hope and of course, money, when you felt the most challenged. I volunteered for Wounded Warrior Project for a year and my job was to vet out organizations to refer the warriors in need. I did a lot of research on your organization (and approved it for the WWP programs) and I am just adore Pets for Patriots.
Kelly, where to begin! So glad that my story moved you (sorry about the tears), and thanks for being instrumental in approving us with WWP. I’m one of those ‘jump in and figure it out as you go along’ types of people, so just doing it is kind of in my DNA. I think we all struggle with where we belong; I feel blessed to have (hopefully) figured that mostly out…at least for now!
Such a wonderful story. Thanks so much for sharing.
Your story is a good example of Karma. Now I know what drew me to Pets For Patriots besides the possibility of finding a pet. Your encouragement and bright personality shone through my own personal Brain-Cloud to show me the value of a companion pet besides pet ownership. I have come to understand the lingering pain of my personal demons that were weighing me down over a lifetime.
It is through your work and the work of your awesome staff that we Patriots have another tool to come to grips with self-imposed loneliness, semi-exile, depression and despair. In addition, I can be a part of a movement to spare less-than-desirable pets from death.
“Thank you” seems not to be enough. You are too far away for a big hug and my estate won’t be available for many years due to my new pal Dog Marley bringing me back to a full life.
Our earth needs more people like you. I am proud to be a member of Pets For Patriots and can only offer my deepest most heartfelt thanks.
Thanks so much for your kind words, Joe; it’s for veterans like you that we even exist!
Thanks, Carol; glad you enjoyed it.
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