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; we were all cat allergic – and was 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.