2022 Volunteer Spotlight
We are so thankful for our wonderful volunteers and Happily Furever After Rescue would not be able to operate without their support and dedication to helping animals in need. Each month we will feature a volunteer who has helped make an impact within our organization. Read to learn more and check back monthly to see who we feature next:
JANUARY VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: BRIAN BELLITTO & JEN O' BRIEN
Brian Bellitto and his girlfriend, Jen O’ Brien, started volunteering with Happily Furever After Rescue this past fall after they lost their four-legged best friend, Huey Lewis, in October 2021. Jen had rescued Huey in January 2012 from the Hartford Animal Shelter. “After losing Huey, we found ourselves wanting to help local rescues and shelters,” shares Jen. “Our hearts were broken, but we thought helping other animals in need could help heal our pain.”
In November 2021, Brian and Jen decided to open up their hearts and home to Rusty, one of our special and long-term pups. Rusty came to us from a troubling past and experienced a great deal of abuse and neglect during his first year of life. Because of this, he is currently going through behavioral rehabilitation to tackle his anxiety and help him become the best version of himself. Brian and Jen are a prime example of what fostering is all about – taking a chance on a dog in dire need of patience, love, and understanding.
“Happily Furever After Rescue has impacted our lives by inspiring us to foster and support dogs in need. If you are in a position that allows you to help volunteer or foster, go for it! Regardless of the challenges happening in your own personal world, helping support your community can make impacting changes for the people and animals around us,” explains Brian and Jen.
This couple recently started an organization called Huey’s Power of Love, in memory of their beloved dog, Huey Lewis, which helps to assist animal shelters and rescues in the community. When they’re not busy volunteering, Brian is a powerlifting coach and personal trainer and Jen is an art teacher by day and fills her free time with various hobbies including roller derby, powerlifting, and cookie decorating.
FEBRUARY VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: TRACY RUNKO
During the pandemic, Tracy Runko found herself working from home full-time and made the decision to become a foster mom and fulfill her lifelong dream. “I have loved animals for as long as I can remember! Growing up we had dogs, cats, and rabbits, however, despite all this, I also wanted to help animals who were in need,” Tracy shares. In December 2020 she joined the team and welcomed her first set of bonded kitties, Snow & Mittens. After about a day in her home, Tracy became a “foster fail” and decided to adopt the pair, renaming them Charlie Brown and Lucy.
To date, the Runko family has fostered eight cats. “I am so happy that I can save even just one life, and to know I have saved eight so far, fills me with so much joy. However, the BEST thing is finding that perfect home for each pet,” exclaims Tracy. “Jaclyn is an amazing advocate for animals, and involves the foster parent in helping select just the right home for each kitty. Seeing the happy faces of each new family when they pick up their new fur baby is the best feeling in the world.”
Like many of our other volunteers, Tracy especially enjoys being involved in the transport process. “I’ll never forget my first transport at the airport…seeing all these dogs, cats, and kittens pile out of the plane was incredible! They were all SO excited and each animal was met by a loving foster parent who was going to give them a (temporary) home they never had before.”
Our fosters are also very much integrated into the adoption process. In January 2022, a stray cat named Muffin found her furever home. “This beautiful kitty was adopted by a mother and daughter who recently got out of a difficult situation. When the little girl held her for the first time, my heart burst with joy to see the love on her face as she cradled Muffin in her arms. To know that my efforts could help bring such happiness is the ultimate satisfaction fostering can provide.”
Tracy is always spreading the word about fostering and encouraging others to get involved. She says, “Foster! Just do it, you won’t regret it! Admittedly it’s a bit crazy at times, but so worth it. You can tell each animal is so appreciative to be in a warm house, have a comfy bed to curl up in, and to have a never-ending supply of food. Plus, Happily Furever After Rescue provides everything you need, making it super easy.”
In addition to four cats and two dogs, Tracy and her husband have five adult children. They are spread across the country (Los Angeles, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Burlington) so they get to travel and visit them as much as they can. Besides having a fulfilling career, Tracy loves the beach, skiing, trying new food, exploring local breweries, cycling, and trying to live life to its fullest.
MARCH VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: MERISSA THOMPSON & DAVE DURBIN
Merissa Thompson and Dave Durbin started with Happily Furever After Rescue as adopters before joining the team as foster volunteers. Merissa had been involved with rescuing on and off for over a decade and was lucky enough to find her soul dog, Gulliver, in the process. Dave also has a heart for helping animals in need. In May 2020, Merissa and Dave adopted Gunner (previously Radar) and decided they wanted to do even more. Then, in March 2021, they became two-time adopters after they saw Maverick, who also happened to look like a long-lost brother of Gunner, posted for adoption. “It was orange dog love at first sight and our home wouldn’t be complete without our three boys!” shares Merissa.
When Merissa and Dave bought a new house in May, they saw it as the perfect opportunity to begin fostering. They fostered a puppy named Cody last summer, who is now starring in ad campaigns, and then opened up their home again to Fritz, who was in desperate need of help. To date, Merissa and Dave have fostered two dogs. “Fostering is so rewarding! We get to help dogs find their homes, just like our boys did, and Jaclyn is always so on top of everything. At Happily Furever After Rescue, you always feel supported and I especially like that Jaclyn values the input of her fosters when finding the right fit for her animals,” says Merissa.
Merissa and Dave’s most recent foster was a dog named Fritz. He came from an unfortunate and neglectful situation and when he first arrived to their home, he was extremely anxious and neurotic. After just 24 hours, he began to settle and within a week, Fritz learned how to sit, lay down, play outside, became fully house trained, and was finally relaxed. “Seeing the change in Fritz in the short amount of time we had him has been the most rewarding part of fostering. However, we can’t take all the credit because our boys did a lot of the work in teaching him ‘how to dog,’ but being a part of watching that shift was amazing,” explains Merissa. “He now gets to experience life as a balanced dog with boundaries and we couldn't have asked for a better turn out.” The best part of it all was that he stayed in the family and was adopted by Dave’s son!
Merissa and Dave are true rescue advocates and are always encouraging others to get involved. “Fostering will truly change your life. Is it hard to watch them leave? Absolutely! But when you know that they are going to a new home where they are going to be showered in love and you helped get them there, there's no feeling like it.” Being a part of Happily Furever After Rescue brought them Gunner and Maverick and they are now able to bring the same type of happiness to other families looking to adopt.
When not fostering dogs, Merissa and Dave love spending time with each other and their dogs. Exploring new and favorite restaurants is one of their favorite things to do, in addition to music and going to concerts. When the weather allows, they enjoy kayaking (sometimes the boys even come along if it's safe), hiking (always with the dogs), bike riding (yup, they do that too), camping (of course, the pups join), having people and their dogs over to hang out in the backyard, and just relaxing with the pups at home. The biggest debate at home is deciding whether they should adopt another dog...or maybe a cat...or just keep fostering.
APRIL VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: STEPH & FAY BODNER
Steph and her daughter, Fay Bodner have been involved with Happily Furever After Rescue since the beginning. “Our hearts were deeply touched by Jaclyn’s dog, Tyler, the inspiration behind the rescue. We got to see firsthand how a good family can save the life of an animal, and how one rescue dog could change the life of a person,” shares Steph. To date, the Bodner family has fostered five animals: Ash, Molly, Cinnamon, Kelsie, and Samoa. Ash, a gorgeous grey kitty, however became a foster fail only days after he came into their home in November 2020. In addition to fostering, Steph and Fay volunteer at many of our adoption events and assist with transports.
Steph and Fay, who happen to be close friends/family of Jaclyn, have always loved animals and were thrilled when she decided to start her own foster-based rescue after volunteering at her local shelter for many years. Steph says, “We love getting to be a part of the journey from rescue to adoption for these dogs and cats. Many times, we have been at transport, whether it be at the airport or a local rest stop, to the day they go to their furever homes. It’s amazing to see the joy and excitement on the faces of not only the adopters, but the fosters too. Over the course of two years, we have been blessed to work with and meet some amazing people that share the same passion,” Steph explains.
Being involved in the rescue has been emotionally fulfilling for Steph and Fay and they love having the opportunity to do something so big and beautiful in the world. “We are always encouraging others to get involved,” Steph says. “Fostering will make you feel so good and you are truly making a huge impact on the lives of animals in need. Plus, Jaclyn makes it very easy as she provides all the supplies and support needed to foster.”
When Steph and Fay aren’t volunteering, they love going on hikes and kayaking with their dog, Zena, and foster pups when they have them. They also enjoy baking, especially when it is for a Happily Furever Ever After bake sale!
MAY VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: ANNEMARIE DEENAN & MATT NAREL
Annemarie Deenan and her fiancé, Matt Narel, joined Happily Furever After Rescue in the summer of 2021. They first got involved in animal rescue as a dog walker with DAWS and then got into fostering when the shelter needed an emergency foster for two senior pups, who Annemarie and Matt ended up adopting a week later. This amazing couple specializes in saving senior dogs and to date, they’ve helped foster six of them, one of which has been a “foster fail” with HFAR.
Annemarie shares, “I love helping dogs feel safe and cared for. A lot of them have never gotten the care or attention they deserve so I enjoy providing that for them. It's such a special experience to earn a dog’s trust, especially one who has been abandoned or has had a rough life. Fostering is more than providing a safe home and consistent meals, it's allowing a dog to express themselves and learn how to just ‘be a dog’ again.”
In addition to helping animals over the past year, Happily Furever After Rescue has introduced Annemarie and Matt to so many incredible people. “We are very lucky to get the chance to help senior dogs find safe and loving homes alongside such generous and compassionate volunteers,” the couple explains. “It definitely takes a strong person to foster and we are grateful to be a part of such a great team!”
One of Annemarie’s favorite moments was with one of her recent fosters, Scruffy, a 14-year-old Shih Tzu whose owner sadly passed away. She was there the day his new mom came to meet him at one of our adoption events and witnessed their instant connection. “The best part was introducing Scruffy to his new pack, which included two other senior Shih Tzu’s. Scruffy is now living the life and I couldn't imagine a better home for him to have found,” Annemarie says.
May is actually celebrated as National Foster a Pet Month. Fostering is a crucial part of rescue and while difficult, it also has many benefits, both for the animal and human. Annemarie exclaims, “I know that most people are afraid to foster because they fear getting attached to the animal, and I'm here to say that you absolutely will! I have gotten very close to all of my fosters but it makes it so much more meaningful when you find the perfect home for them to go to (and it just might be yours).”
When Annemarie and Matt aren’t volunteering, they enjoy short hikes with all four of their senior pups, as well as gardening and reading in their company. They also like taking car rides to the dog park, especially when there are other small pups there! In addition to their adorable pack of small seniors, the couple also has four male guinea pigs (Han Solo, Vader, Obi-Wan, and Kylo). Annemarie and Matt love to connect and chat with other pet lovers – make sure to follow their pack of furry friends on Instagram @the_misfit_pets.
JUNE VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: AUTUMN STACKS & PHIL PORTER
Autumn Stacks and her boyfriend, Phil Porter, first got involved with Happily Furever After Rescue in December 2021. To date, they have fostered three kitties. Being pet owners themselves, the couple had always wanted to do something more to help animals in need. “We love fostering for Happily Furever After Rescue because we’re able to care for cats that need it the most. We cannot adopt any more animals so it’s nice to be able to provide a temporary loving home while they look for their furever one,” Autumn says.
Most recently, Autumn and Phil took in a very special case. We had rescued a kitten named Smokey from a neglectful living situation where her health was deteriorating quickly. Upon intake, she was so terrified to the point she was considered feral. She did not trust anyone and would lash out and become aggressive. Autumn shares, “We worked with her every day to help her overcome her challenges. By giving her a safe place, and with a lot of patience, we helped her to feel safe and she turned into the sweetest cat and found the perfect home.”
Autumn and Phil do fall in love with every foster that comes into their home but say that “it’s so completely worth it and knowing you are making a difference is a great feeling.” Autumn currently works as a veterinary technician and the pair absolutely love cats. They currently have two at home, some fish, and a lot of plants. They love hiking, gardening, and working with any and all types of animals.
JULY VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: JILL MYEROW
Jill Myerow, a lifelong animal lover, joined the Happily Furever After Rescue team in April 2022. She decided to start volunteering as a way to help heal after losing one of her senior pups last fall. Her other dog, Oliver, a 14.5-year-old shih-poo, was very lonely and she thought fostering would be a win-win for all. Well, it certainly was!
After we received a desperate call from a good samaritan about a dog in a neglectful situation, Jill immediately jumped right into action to help! Bella was a severely overweight 4-year-old chiweenie, weighing in at 41 lbs. She had endured a life of abuse where she was kept in a crate for over 20 hours a day. She never knew love…that was until we rescued her.
Jill took Bella under her wing and showed her just how wonderful humans can be. “I loved seeing the transformation from day 1 to day 41, and all of the “firsts” we got to experience together — attending events at wineries and local businesses, bringing her along for walks in our neighborhood, and watching her thrive into a healthy, loving home routine made my heart feel full,” Jill shares.
The two became inseparable and while Jill did go back and forth with the idea of keeping Bella, she reminded herself that if she was to keep them all, she would never be able to foster so our sweet little girl was put up for adoption. Bella found a wonderful home with a single woman who was going through a personal trauma herself. It was a perfect ending! Jill explains, “Even though I cried when Bella went off to her new home, the sense of satisfaction in knowing that I was a part of her journey to a new life was extremely satisfying. Fostering is such a great way to give back to your community and is rewarding to both two and four-legged family members.”
Jill lives in Danbury with her boyfriend, Patrick, and son, Ryan. When she is not busy fostering or volunteering at our events, Jill enjoys traveling, exploring new places, experimenting in the kitchen, and knitting.
AUGUST VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: ALLYSON COHEN
Allyson Cohen joined the Happily Furever After Rescue team in July 2021. After being raised with animals, and as an adult, Allyson continued to be an avid dog lover and owner. She currently has a 9-year-old Miniature Schnauzer named Abby and about two years ago, she decided she wanted to adopt a second pup. “While searching online rescue sites, I was shocked and deeply saddened reading about what some of these poor animals had been through. The stories of loss, abandonment, neglect, and abuse had me in tears. My heart hurt — I knew I couldn’t adopt them all, but I wanted to help as many as possible, so I put my adoption thoughts on hold and decided to become a foster instead,” Allyson shares.
Since then, Allyson has fostered two dogs, Luna and Peanut. Luna was a beautiful young lab who was eager to forgive the humans who decided to abandon her. She’s now living her best life in a new home with another dog and children to play with. Allyson’s current foster, Peanut, is a sweet, loving Maltese mix who came into her life as a stray. She showed up in her front yard during the Fourth of July weekend, soaking wet, shaking, and starved. She had been wandering with another dog who unfortunately didn’t make it. Peanut was not in good shape when we found her so Allyson immediately transported her to the emergency vet to get her stabilized. After that, she had to be held for a week at animal control to see if anyone claimed her but no one did so we took her into the rescue and Allyson volunteered to be her foster mama. Allyson explains, “The universe works in mysterious ways — it’s crazy to think that Peanut knew that out of all the houses in the neighborhood, mine would be the one to help her because we had Happily Furever After Rescue on our side.”
Being a part of Happily Furever After has been a definite eye opener for Allyson. She now sees just how important fosters are to rescue organizations, and that without them, there wouldn’t be so many happily furever after’s to celebrate. Every foster placed in a loving home opens the door for the next one to be helped. “I would encourage anyone looking to foster to go for it. Sure, it’s not easy to say goodbye to an animal you’ve taken care of and formed a bond with, but to know that you helped them along the way to finding a new and happy life and family is so rewarding,” Allyson says.
When Allyson isn’t fostering dogs, she enjoys metal detecting. She is the Northeast Field Rep for American Digger Magazine and has traveled all over New England, and the East Coast, covering events while pursuing the hobby. “Metal detecting is an awesome hobby! You never know what, or when you’re going to find something great — that’s what makes it so exciting…but even if all I find for the day is junk, I still had fun finding it!” Allyson exclaims.
SEPTEMBER VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: AARON & HEATHER OLSZEWSKI
Aaron and Heather Olszewski came across Happily Furever After Rescue while attending a pet event in the summer of 2022. The couple immediately applied to be fosters and have been volunteering ever since. To date, they’ve fostered three dogs, Lewis, Oreo, and Stormy, and even helped watch HFAR alum, Delta, for a few days. Aaron and Heather never hesitate to go above and beyond to help a pup in need.
“We love fostering with Happily Furever After Rescue – it’s a very easy-going organization that listens to its volunteers and really cares about each animal they save. Jaclyn works to find options that best fit your needs and home,” says Aaron. Fostering first gave them the opportunity to help out dogs that needed a safe and nurturing place. In turn, it also helped them learn more about their own dog and has allowed for them to have a better relationship with all their fur babies at home.
They’ve thoroughly enjoyed their foster experience so far but one moment that stands out is the adoption of Oreo, now Khaki. Heather shares, “We met HFAR volunteer, Becca, at the first adoption event we participated in. Becca helped watch our foster, Oreo, while we had to go out of town for a few days. It didn’t take long for Becca and Oreo to realize they were meant for one another so she officially became a “foster fail.” It was pretty amazing to see how things worked out when you least expected it.
Heather and Aaron explain, “If you have a lot of love and joy to share and like animals, give fostering a try! Rescues, like HFAR, make it really easy to something that works for your situation. There's a lot of dogs and cats out there that need us as they await their adoption and furever families.”
Aaron and Heather are both pet lovers and enjoy learning about new breeds. They reside in Oxford, CT and have three cats and one dog. They enjoy exploring the great outdoors and Aaron is currently starting a woodworking business, JustBuildItDesign.com.
OCTOBER VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: KRISTINE LEJAVA
Kristine LeJava got involved at Happily Furever After Rescue in the summer of 2022. “I follow a bunch of local animal rescue groups on Facebook and was always drawn to HFAR's mission. It's not just about saving shelter animals and getting them adopted, but instead the focus is on finding the BEST home possible for that dog or cat. I loved Jaclyn's story about her taking a chance on her fur baby, Tyler, and how she started the rescue,” says Kristine.
Over the past few months, Kristine has fostered three kittens, one who recently became a “foster fail.” Ferris, now Merlin, was found locally in Danbury at a worksite and was so dirty, sick, and scared. The intention was just to foster him but Kristine and her family quickly fell in love and he fit right into their home. It was a purrfect match! “HFAR has made a big difference in my life because I had breast cancer surgery this year and was struggling, being relatively young and feeling disconnected as I tried to work through it. Caring for a kitten or two helped to distract me and has been an extremely rewarding experience” shares Kristine.
The first foster the LeJava family brought into their home was a shy kitten named Badger. After being with them for a couple of weeks, he began to come out of his shell and specifically bonded to Kristine’s son. It was a difficult decision to let him go but they knew he needed more than they could offer him. “We conveyed the home we felt was right for Badger and that’s exactly what he got so we were so happy,” Kristine exclaims.
Kristine is not only involved as a foster volunteer, but also helps occasionally at our events. “I think fostering is a great way to care for animals in need and also gives someone the chance to see what owning a pet is like, without a long-term commitment. I especially enjoy helping out at the events because I love to hear all the adoption stories and even get to see alumni that come visit and see them thriving with their furever families,” explains Kristine.
Kristine lives in Brookfield with her husband, son (16), and daughter (12). She is actively engaged in her kids' activities, but of course, loves spending time with her dog & kitten whenever she can. Kristine also loves her gym family at Forma Athletics and is also known as “Mrs. Fixit” at home and she likes working on projects.
NOVEMBER VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: LORI EATON & PATRICK STREAMAN
Lori Eaton and Patrick Streaman first got involved with Happily Furever After Rescue over the summer after stopping by one of our adoption events. The couple decided to start fostering as a way to honor their sweet pup, Ellie, who passed away this past February. So far, they have fostered one dog, named Tex, who came to Connecticut on a private plane from Texas. “It was amazing to witness all the hard work Jaclyn does to coordinate transport and see a glimpse into what goes into saving these dogs and cats. To date, our favorite moment has to be watching that plane land and seeing those animals be unloaded, looking scared and unsure, but knowing a better place was waiting for them. Any feeling of uncertainty about fostering went away that day. We were lucky enough to see some of the pups thriving at later events, looking happy with tails wagging,” shares Lori.
When you foster a dog or cat, you help to clear the shelters in order to make room for another animal in need. Over the past few months, Lori and Patrick have been very involved with the rescue and have enjoyed volunteering in our community events. Lori says, “Happily Furever After Rescue has given us back a sense of purpose towards caring for another pup after losing our girl. We have more joy now with Tex in our lives!”
In addition to helping to save a life, one of the biggest perks of fostering is that there is no commitment and everything is provided to you! “Jaclyn made it super easy and we got everything we could have imagined – a comfy dog bed, crate, toys, food, treats, and full vet care,” shares Lori. “All you need is a desire to provide a home and lots of love. What I hear most is how it would be too hard to give up the foster pet; while true, it's completely worth it to see them moving on with their lives instead of the alternatives, like being stuck in a shelter, or worse, euthanized. If you cannot foster, there are many other ways to volunteer.”
In their spare time, Patrick likes to fish…and Tex has become an awesome fishing buddy! Lori likes to be active and takes walks, especially with Tex, who is wonderful on leash! He has become a great addition in their home as the couple enjoys hiking and spending time in the great outdoors – Tex has even gone kayaking! Lori and Patrick like to cook at home and are big Pittsburgh Steelers fans…but being a Texas boy, they’re pretty sure Tex is into the Dallas Cowboys.
DECEMBER VOLUNTEER OF THE MONTH: MEGHAN & NICHOLAS COLLEN
Meghan and Nicholas Collen joined Happily Furever After Rescue this past summer after we were presented with a unique opportunity to help a local litter of stray kittens abandoned by their mother. This powerhouse couple came with extensive experience after they began their fostering journey six years ago. “We had adopted a perfect little kitten named Sirius and started to notice that he needed a friend to play with. Fostering seemed like a good path so we reached out to a local rescue and took in our first litter. Sirius made friends with all the kitties but was especially connected with Marx, so he became the first of our fosters that became a permanent fixture in our home. We loved the experience so much that we just kept on going with fostering for several years, collecting two more ‘foster fails’ along the way,” shares Meghan.
Since 2017, Meghan and Nicholas have fostered hundreds of cats and kittens. They have helped everything from friendly to feral cats of all ages and backgrounds. Nicholas says, “We love being able to make a difference in the lives of both the kittens that we foster and the families that adopt them. There’s something special about giving these animals a loving place to live knowing that they would otherwise have been kept in cages, or possibly worse at the shelters that HFAR rescues them from. Jaclyn does an awesome job helping through the foster process and being a support whenever needed.”
The first litter they fostered through Happily Furever After Rescue was a challenging one. The litter of five were deserted by their mother at a very young age and Meghan and Nicholas stepped in as their 24/7 caregivers. They had to be bottle fed, cleaned constantly, medicated to overcome a URI, and taught how to use a litterbox. After many months of raising and caring for the astrology kitties, they found amazing families. “A woman adopted two of the kittens in that litter and we’ve shared many conversations since then about how much joy they have brought to her life. It was really amazing to hear that the work and love that went into saving those kittens was able to carry into another family's life in such an impactful way,” explains Meghan.
While fostering comes with its ups and downs, the rewards are priceless as it can help bring a lot of happiness into a home. Nicholas expresses, “There’s something special about constantly having the energy of cute little kittens in the house. You always have a little fuzz that wants your love and is ready to cuddle when you need it. It's always so gratifying when you are able to connect a kitten with a furever home and being along on their journey to a new family.”
Meghan and Nicholas met at UConn and have been together for 15 years. Over the course of their lives together, they have found so much fulfillment in taking care of felines…so much so that they are in the process of opening up a cat cafe to increase the visibility and frequency of rescue animals to be adopted. They share, “We plan on dedicating our lives to rescue, educating the community to the physical and mental health benefits of cats, and to bring love and joy to all involved. Every living creature deserves to be safe and loved. We will continue to do everything we can to do good in the world.”