My Life’s Work.
Seven years ago this month, I officially started as the Executive Director of Gateway Pet Guardians. It was something that I never imagined would happen and it’s been an incredible journey! I thought I’d share it for those that would like to know more about me and how GPG has grown. We just completed the 2016 impact report and I have shared it in this post. I am so proud of where we are now and everything we have done to get here! This truly is my life’s work.
I have always been an avid pet lover. From snuggling cows and kitties on our family’s farm in Wisconsin to working in the animal care field in high school and college, animals have always been a big part of my life! My educational background is in marketing and small business and I worked doing both in the jobs leading up to my transition into animal welfare.
In 2008, my husband Shaun and I were living downtown St. Louis in a loft with our very social and energetic (and vocal) beagle/basset/pug, Mardi and my aging childhood black lab mix, Shadow. We decided to join the Frenchtown Dog Park in Soulard to give Mardi an outlet and the exercise he needed. We loved it so much. I joined the board and became the President shortly thereafter. Through our involvement with the dog park, we met our dear friend and Dog Park founder, Julia Mittelstadt. Julia is also one of the Gateway Pet Guardians’ founders (and 2016 GPG Humanitarian of the Year) and a fabulous realtor who specializes in South City.
Shaun and I quickly fell deeply in love with the Soulard/Benton Park area. Julia found us our first home in Benton Park in 2008. Shortly after we moved, we decided we wanted to expand our four-legged family and Julia (as usual) was pushing the GPG kool-aid. I can still remember the day I asked Shaun “so, what if we fostered before we adopted another dog”. Famous. Last. Words.
We met Julia at a small coffee shop on Cherokee and in true Julia fashion, we came home with a dog that day. Her name was Gauge. And… SHE WAS CRAZY (but we loved her). She was a rat terrier mix. She peed on the couch, dug the keys off of my laptop, scratched through our drywall (while in her crate) and overall put us through the foster ringer! This was all in a very short amount of time. I quickly called Julia and threw in the towel! She convinced us to swap her out for another dog she also had in her house. We obliged. We met Julia at another adoption event and came home with Mr. Benton Parker, our first pit bull mix foster.
Oh. My. Goodness. Who knew pitties were the best dogs in the entire world?!?? I have never been so loved in my life (well besides by my amazing hubby and mom). He was Velcro and scared. Very scared. He needed to be desensitized to everything (loud noises, plastic bags, EVERYTHING). Foster boot camp round two.
That wasn’t enough for us though (well maybe it was for Shaun – but remember he is amazing). We decided to also take in our first mom and pup fosters. We welped mama Mazy and her five adorable puppies.
Okay, let’s keep moving forward. We don’t have time to hear about every one of the hundreds of dogs (and one cat) that had moved through our home.
That Thanksgiving of 2008, I went on my first ride along with PJ Hightower, one of the other GPG founders and the reason GPG was formed – to support her work. I was blown away. I am from Belleville so driving through East St. Louis was a regular part of my life visiting my very large family. If you have driven through the community anytime in the past ten to fifteen years, you are aware of the stray dog problem.
I was blown away. There was this incredible woman and organization that cared for these animals. The dogs were scared, feral, dirty, hungry and cold. BUT, there was someone there caring for them, bringing them food EVERY DAY and water. And love.
Ok, I was hooked. I come from a long line of small business owners and remember have an education in small business. My mom is also the QUEEN of fundraisers! So, my entrepreneurial side immediately kicked in I wanted to do whatever I could to help! I went back to work and did a food drive. At the time, PJ bought over 1000lbs of food per month and paid for it herself to feed these dogs (and a few kitties).
Next, money. Call in the troops. MOMMMMMMM! In April 2009, we had our first silent auction fundraiser, Pasta for Pets at the Pasta House in Fairview Heights. All of my family and friends were there and I was blown away at the support. We raised over $6000. This was A LOT of money for an organization that was $10,000 in debt to our veterinarians and had only $2000 in the bank.
At this point Facebook was coming in fast and hard. The word was spreading about our work and local TV celeb (my now dear friend, fellow crazy dog-lady and morning radio host), Julie Tristan reached out and wanted to do a story on us! Woop woop! Our big break! We were growing so quickly, I couldn’t keep up. More fosters, more dogs, more money!
I sat down and put my business hat on, could GPG afford a paid staff member and could I do it for what we could afford. This is my passion, so yes. We’d make it work. But, to convince Shaun. Eeeek. I was nervous. I made a compelling argument to Shaun (remember, amazing!), approached the board and in March 2010 went part time with GPG and part time with my then-employer, Pohlman USA Court Reporting. They were extremely understanding and knew this was where I belonged.
In July with the help of Webster University professor, Rebecca Ormond, we released Gateway Guardians at the St. Louis International Film Festival, our documentary showing the important work we were doing.
By September 2010, it was clear that our growth required a full-time Executive Director and I was ready! Rescue efforts catapulted after that and growth was unbelievable!
2012 was another big year for us! In May 2012, we moved into our current shelter next to Hillside Animal Hospital. Long-time supporter and board member, Dr. Ed Migneco donated the space to us to help us move our mission forward. We could now move all of the supplies and donations out of our homes and into a new home!
Also in late 2012, we started our spay/neuter program in East St. Louis AND started transferring animals from the euthanasia list at St. Clair County Animal Services. With the addition of a shelter, puppies galore from community members who had unplanned litters and a new avenue to rescue from, our rescue numbers doubled within a year! We were in a constant state of reactivity and change as we grew every program we had (foster, shelter, volunteer, etc.).
In 2013, Shaun and I realized we were ready to be parents (to two-legged creatures this time)! We figured we did pretty good at taking care of dogs and puppies, this would be the same, right??? In November 2013, we welcomed Ella Lee Case (and November 2016, welcomed Charley Raymond Case) into our lives and the world of rescue. That winter was brutal. As I was wrapping up maternity leave the weather continued to get worse and the temperatures were plummeting. With wind chills of -20, our team took action thus forming our Outreach Program. Volunteers hit the streets daily during these frigid and deadly temperatures urging pet owners to bring their pets indoors and provided dog houses and straw for when the temps returned to above freezing. Rescues rose and once again, we were in reactivity mode to formally organize our outreach efforts. Shelter volunteer, Natalie Creamer came on board to lead the Outreach Program.
Since that time, we have seen a DRASTIC decline in strays living on the streets. The feral population is almost completely non-existent (we haven’t rescued a true feral from the streets in two years) and puppies are hard to come by. Driving the community is also a completely different scene. Our dog houses decorate many yards (thanks to Nestle Purina for providing some of the most uniquely decorated houses around!), owners are walking their beloved dogs on leashes, HUNDREDS are spayed and neutered and the community members are there with open arms and hugs when we drive and walk though their neighborhoods.
The work we are doing is changing the landscape of a community. It’s changing people’s lives and enriching the lives of the animals we serve. I am doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do and I love it every day. Some days are hard. Some days are really hard. Some days are really, really hard. But every day we are making a difference for people and their pets. And every day is worth it.
I couldn’t be prouder of our team and my GPG family. We are in this together to save lives and make an impact on a community that many cast aside. CLICK HERE TO SEE OUR 2016 IMPACT REPORT!