Connecticut Animal Welfare Groups Passionately Protect Animals
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Help Willy’s Friends
Durham, (203) 988-1718 (helpwillysfriends.org)
When Mark and Sharon Paturzo adopted their Australian shepherd-English springer spaniel mix, Willy, from a local shelter in 2003, they learned a whole lot more than about simply raising one dog. A little background research taught them about the millions of shelter cats and dogs euthanized nationally each year because of a shortage of funds, space and adoptive families coming forward to rescue them. Three years later, the couple founded Help Willy’s Friends (HWF), a 501(c)3 nonprofit with the following goals: to provide shelters, pounds, rescues and related organizations with food, supplies and money for veterinary care; sponsor awareness events to bring attention to the plight of shelter animals; encourage community volunteerism on behalf of animals in need; and promote adoption of pets from shelters and animal rescues rather than purchase from pet stores.
“I just felt that I had to do this,” says Mark Paturzo. “I honestly don’t know why I felt so driven.” The Paturzos’ first project was a one-day pet-food drive in December, 2006, at Agway in North Branford. It became an annual event, eventually taking place at four Agway stores, including North Haven, Middlefield and Southington. Last year, the drive collected 3,000 pounds of food; this year, it’s to be a two-day event.
“Thanks to the success of the holiday drives,” Paturzo says, “we decided to do food collections on a more regular basis.” HWF bins can now be found in pet boutiques, veterinary hospitals, coffee shops and even liquor stores in 33 towns across Connecticut, yielding 22,000 cans and 26,000 pounds of food in the past year alone. Unfortunately, the organization’s list of beneficiaries has also grown, he adds, “as the economy has continued to struggle and people have lost jobs and homes, and had to surrender their pets to shelters.” To date more than 150 shelters, rescues and other charities have received donations from HWF, including out-of-state nonprofits such as Aarph of Vermont, New York’s Yonkers Animal Shelter and New Jersey’s Sayreville Sandy Relief Center.
HWF’s signature awareness event is the Help Willy’s Friends Pet Fair, held every May on the grounds of Coginchaug Regional High School in Durham. Established in 2009, the event is a chance for local animal rescues, shelters and other welfare organizations to network with one another, meet the public and give their animals available for adoption a day of fun and frolic (and a possible introduction to their forever families—one much anticipated highlight is the Pet Parade, during which shelter and rescue volunteers provide the adoptable dogs they’ve brought a few moments in the spotlight). In five years the number of organizations attending the event has grown from roughly 20 to 62, and 100 percent of the proceeds from the pet fair, says Paturzo, is reinvested in the fund to benefit Willy’s Friends. Nearly $5,000 a year has been given to Connecticut shelters and rescues in the form of annual grants known as the “Willy Award”: Recipients have included Stratford’s Helping Hands for Wildlife, the Branford Compassion Club and East Haven Animal Shelter, among others.
Paturzo’s current goal is to develop a “Willy’s Warehouse”—to find or build a structure large enough to store, and even add to, the food donations that keep pouring in. “Right now, we’re working out of our garage, and space is pretty tight,” he says. All he needs is the funding, so toward this end, he’s “squirreled some money away” and has launched an online shop on the HWF website selling custom HWF sportswear (for humans), green cleaning products and all-natural gel candles. “If we had a warehouse, we could collect food from manufacturers palletfuls at a time,” he says. “Actually, they’d give us the food now, but we’re not asking until we have the room.”