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Adopting a dog is a wonderful thing.The puppy dog eyes–so cute! That wagging tail whenever he sees you! When Annie Blumenfeld was 14 years-old she experienced all the joys of dog ownership when she adopted a two-year-old shaggy dog named Teddy after three years of looking for the right pup.
Teddy was rescued from a high kill shelter in Texas by Houston Shaggy Dog Rescue. But at his veterinarian checkup, the doctors did a blood test on Teddy and discovered he had heartworms.
Heartworms are especially prevalent in the South, due to the mosquitos which carry the parasite. And Teddy was infected.
Heartworm disease varies in severity. Some dogs don’t exhibit any symptoms other than an occasional cough. But when it gets severe they can stop eating, experience fatigue and weight loss. Because it can take months or even years for symptoms to develop, many dogs go undiagnosed until the condition is well advanced. Blood tests can help detect the heartworm early.
But those tests are expensive, and the treatment can be too. Visits to the vet, the bloodwork, and X-rays can cost as much as $2000. Because of this, some dogs in shelters are euthanized before they get a chance to find a home.
Teddy had to be given injections of arsenic and remain in a crate, while constantly being monitored for four months. Annie was determined to help other homeless dogs avoid the illness and help those pups who already have the disease recover from it.
So Annie combined her love of dogs with her other passion–painting–to create Wags 4 Hope in 2012. Wags4Hope aims to educate pet owners about heartworm and to raise funds for rescues so they can treat the disease. She raises money by selling her paintings (of dogs, of course).
A few day’s after Teddy’s rescue, one of Annie’s paintings was featured in a local art show. “One nice lady approached me and asked if I was the artist. She wanted to buy the painting, and her friend asked if I painted other dogs.” This gave her an idea, and Wags 4 Hope was formed.
She quickly learned that in order to apply for grants, she needed to become a 501(C)3. The process wasn’t easy. “I started doing it by myself, but eventually had my dad’s accountant look at it. It was all new. I started in June of 2012, and didn’t get certified until January of 2014. There were lots of phone calls with the IRS.”
But Annie didn’t sit idly by while waiting for her official non-profit status. “I took it step by step. Neighbors began talking about it and the orders started coming in.”
In addition to applying for grants and painting she started reaching out to companies that sold pet products. “I had a general letter that I sent out asking for items that were either slightly damaged or not selling. Then I’d donate them to rescues and shelters.”
She created a website in order to reach out to people outside of her community. While she didn’t have any experience with making websites, she found a way to do it. After registering her domain, she got a pre-made theme. “I worked with my host, GoDaddy, to turn it into a WordPress site.” Once it became a WordPress site, Annie could customize it without having to learn HTML.
But a website doesn’t do any good if no one visits it. So Annie got busy with social media. She has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a Tumblr blog. Between painting and social media, Annie estimates she works about 15 hours a week on Wags 4 Hope.
She also works hard to raise awareness other ways. “I spread the word by contacting magazines, radio shows and local TV,” she said. And she got coverage–lots of it. ABC News, The Connecticut Post, The Dodo, The Bark, and Connecticut Magazine featured her cause.
She also went to the director of activities at her high school and pitched the idea for a Wags 4 Dogs club. Even though her fellow students didn’t meet the age requirement of 18 to volunteer at a shelter, she knew that the students could still help. The club created a PSA for shelters and now raises funds through bake sales to buy fleece blankets.
She did all this while still being in school. “I take orders during the holidays. Paintings can take anywhere from a week to two months.”
But she decided there was even more she could do. She contacted her state representative, Tony Hwang, to create a bill to get language about heartworm on the state’s dog licensing form. The form is the first in the country to contain a checkbox that indicates a dog receives heartworm preventative medication.
Annie has no plans of stopping, despite heading off to college. “I want to create “Pet Responsibility Care Kits” for kids in elementary schools and games for kids to educate them about responsible pet ownership,” she says.
While it might seem incredible that she could create such a successful non-profit, she has this advice: “Find a mentor, be focused on your passion, and you can help from all different sides: whether it’s money or time–you can donate.”