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Volunteer group finds new homes for abandoned animals

Stories of dogs successfully rescued from often perilous situations bring smiles, chuckles and sometimes even a few tears to the faces of three volunteers who are devoting their spare time to a special cause.

Kathy Nowakowski is the managing director of Heart of Niagara Animal Rescue, while Margie Kwiatkowski is treasurer of the board of directors and Linda van Harssel serves as secretary.

They are founders of the all-volunteer, 501(c )(3) not-for-profit organization, which celebrated its third anniversary last weekend.

Their mission is to protect the health and welfare of abandoned, unwanted and homeless companion animals and find new homes for them. They rescue dogs from out-of-state high-kill shelters, as well as local strays or pets whose families can no longer keep them. They deal more with dogs, but also rescue cats.

“It may sound silly, but rescued dogs are very grateful,” said Kwiatkowski. “You get them home and they look at you like, ‘Is this real?’ And they just love you.”

The group relies solely on grants and donations. Its largest fundraiser of the year, “Heart to Heart, A Taste of The Niagara Region,” is planned for noon to 3 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Conference and Event Center of Niagara Falls, 101 Old Falls St.

A $25 ticket allows each patron to sample donated food items from 40 participating restaurants, caterers and bakeries, with calypso and reggae music provided by the Caribbean Extravaganza Band.

Funds raised will help pay for food, medical expenses and needed supplies, as well as helping to renovate the group’s recently acquired house in the Lockport-Newfane area, which will serve as its headquarters. Volunteers believe they can better train pets in a homelike setting to successfully move to a new home and start a new chapter of their lives. They hope to open it this spring.

Nowakowski, who has been able to use grant money for dog-training classes, said they also would like to eventually turn an existing pole barn on the property into “an obedience training and agility center.”

She also is looking forward to the day when her group can host adoption programs at its new home, which includes a fenced yard.

Currently, the group books a number of adoption sessions at sites throughout Western New York, where prospective owners can meet the animals and can even consider fostering them before they adopt them.

The next adoption event is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday during the Niagara Fishing and Outdoor Show at the Conference and Event Center Niagara Falls; followed by another from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 6 at Pet Supplies Plus, 2952 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst; and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 13 in the Walden Galleria, in front of Famous Footwear.

Nowakowski said her group has placed more than 370 dogs and cats in new homes in the past three years, from puppies that were born in her family room to a mother rescued from a high-kill shelter, to dogs that are nearly 10 years old.

Cats are $25 to adopt. Dogs 6 months and younger are $250, while those older than 6 months are $200. The pets all are up to date on immunizations, spayed and neutered, given microchips, a free first doctor’s office visit and 30 days of pet insurance. Volunteers do home visits prior to adoptions to make sure the pet and new owner are the best fit for each other.

More than 50 volunteers from Niagara, Erie, Orleans and Monroe counties contribute their time to Heart of Niagara, but the group always needs more help.

Van Harsell recently took some time to expound on their mission.

If someone wanted to volunteer, how would he or she get started?

We have a volunteer form right on our website. You just fill it out and we put you on our email list, to volunteer at our various events. It’s that simple. And we train our volunteers. We are very hands-on.

What other fundraisers do you have throughout the year?

We fundraise to offset the cost of taking care of the dogs and cats. Our adoption fees do not entirely cover these expenses, so we must constantly fundraise.

We have an ongoing fundraiser with Niagara Candy bars, at a number of businesses and we have volunteers who replenish them. We have family-friendly “Yappy Hours” at restaurants and pubs, where we take baskets to auction and pictures of our dogs. We have a GoFundMe page and hope to raise money to expedite the renovations on the building.

How can people help in other ways?

Businesses contact us and ask, “How can we help?” There’s a lot they can do that doesn’t require any heavy lifting. They can have “Dress Down Days,” or candy sales, or even collect change.

Once a pet is chosen, is that pet ready to go?

We crate-train our dogs, so they can be left alone if the owners have to go to work, for example.

And we get the dogs on a routine – that’s very important to them, so that once they are adopted, they are already on a schedule.

How can people learn more about your group?

Our Facebook page (find it through www.heartofniagaraanimalrescue) is a very helpful tool, because it has the latest information on dogs that will be coming in by transport and foster and adoption opportunities.

We will come out and speak to businesses – or any community organization – about our group. We’ll even bring a couple of dogs and see what interests them (in ways they could help). We can speak to schools, clubs and churches, too. We may be reached at 345-7129.

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The “Heart to Heart” event, to be held Jan. 30 at the Conference and Event Center, Niagara Falls, sells out each year, so patrons are urged to get their $25 tickets soon by visiting the website at www.heartofniagara.org and ordering through PayPal, or sending a check or money order made payable to Heart of Niagara Animal Rescue at P.O. Box 462, Lewiston, NY 14092. Tickets will be held at the door.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.