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 power 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.