By Michele DeLuca firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — Gracie was just a tiny puppy when she was slated to be killed.
She, her two siblings and their mother were on a list to be euthanized last year in an overcrowded animal shelter in Alabama when they were rescued at the last hour by an extensive network of people devoted to saving dogs.
The little furry family was transported to the Niagara region through a chain of many volunteers, who each drove a two-hour portion of the journey. When the dogs arrived in the region, they were placed in the waiting arms of the founders of a year-old rescue organization called Heart of Niagara.
That scene has played out for about 150 animals this year. Saving animals is something the three founders — Margie Kwiatkowski, Kathy Nowakowski and Linda van Harssel — have been dreaming about doing most of their lives. Each of them has worked or volunteered at the SPCA of Niagara, and held out hope of one day creating an animal adoption agency that could provide more options to potential pets.
It was just about a year ago when the founders of Heart of Niagara saved their first dog. Since then, they’ve created a base of foster homes and volunteers that is 60-people strong.
It’s an impressive start for a non-profit, and the trio are proud of their successes thus far, with bigger dreams for the future including a permanent home with a pet sanctuary for the older dogs of owners placed in nursing homes. They dream of a place where abandoned pets feel truly sheltered and — given the success of Heart of Niagara thus far —it’s a good bet that the ladies will make that happen.
The trio said each brings a formidable “power” to the non-profit organization, which they feel accounts for their success.
Their fundraising efforts are due in part to the 30-year sales and marketing career of van Harssel of Lewiston. A recent fundraising event, A Taste of the Niagara Region, netted about $10,000.
The group recently received a nod of approval from pet-supply retailer Petco, which awarded Heart of Niagara a $900 grant for behavioral training instruction for the rescued dogs. The grant came through the efforts of Kwiatkowski, a retired teacher from Lockport, who brought her grant-writing experience to the mix.
“You see a problem and you try to be a solution to the problem and that’s what I think we’re trying to do,” she said.
Kathy Nowakowski of Niagara Falls is the managing director. Her “superpower” is her business acumen. A retired motel owner, she has researched why some animal rescue groups don’t succeed, and it seems to be because they don’t treat the their efforts like a business.
“They get too emotional, and all the rules fly out the window,” Nowakowski said of rescue groups that fail. “The secret is not to get overextended. Don’t take in so many animals you can’t afford their care.”
Fundraising, she added, is a major part of being a nonprofit.
“If you’re not the kind of person who likes to ask for money, you’re in trouble,” she added. “You have to be able to fundraise.”
While each woman commends the work of the SPCA of Niagara, they say they can do things that the agency cannot due to its civic contracts to take all abandoned animals. (Which leaves the shelter with many more pit bulls than other breeds.) Heart of Niagara has a waiting list for those who wish to own certain breeds less available at local public shelters, from poodles to beagles to great danes.
One important thing that sets the group apart is its insistence on home visits before it will allow adoption of its rescued animals. Members have made more than 300 home visits already. Adoption fees are $200 to $300, but the past year is evidence people will pay in support of such care for the rescued animals, including those who have been abused and those who come from puppy mills.
Their experiences prove that following one’s dreams doesn’t always make for happy days every day.
“There’s a lot of sadness to this, a lot of things I’ve been exposed to I don’t want to know, like the puppy mills stuff,” Kwiatkowski said.
But, they persevere. “We focus on the positive,” Kwiatkowski added. “We think, ‘Look at the life I saved today.’ “
“It feels great,” van Harssel added. “You just know you’re using what you know how to do for a bigger good.”
For those interested in supporting their efforts, there are many ways to do so.
The thing Heart of Niagara needs most is temporary storage space. The van Harssel garage is filled to overflowing with donations of food, cages and other rescue-related items. The group also needs a continual stream of support in the form of foster families, volunteers and fundraiser attendees.
Some of their upcoming events include meet-and-greets at area malls and at festivals including the Lewiston Gardenfest and the Lewiston Art Festival. There will be another major fundraiser at Lockport Locks on June 14. Those interested can also like the group on Facebook by searching for “Heart of Niagara.”
In the meantime, families like the Dorgans of Wheatfield are benefiting from the efforts of Heart of Niagara. Janelle Dorgan said that Gracie, now 10 months old, has brought a great deal of joy to the household, which includes daughters Jillian, 8, and twins May and Marlee, 5.
“The dog has literally changed our lives,” Janelle said. “She is just awesome.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION To learn more about the Heart of Niagara animal rescue organization, visit www.heartofniagara.org or call 345-7129.