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How one woman fulfilled her vision for helping both returning soldiers and shelter animals
ADAM RENTERIA'S EXPERIENCES LEADING A HEAVY machine-gun team during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 left him feeling that he was under constant threat, a sensation that continued long after he returned home. He picked fights, drank too much and slept badly. Therapy helped, but in 2012 Renteria felt his symptoms returning. That was also the year he met his gleaming white Korean Jindo. The dog was introduced to him by Pets for Vets, an organization that finds military veterans who are suffering from emotional wounds and pairs them with dogs and other pets from animal shelters.
Having requested a large, intimidating dog, Renteria was surprised when Clarissa Black, 35, the organization's founder and executive director, arrived with the mid-size 40-pound pooch. "He's cute, but this is nothing like what I asked for," he thought at first. "How is this dog going to help me?" Yet Clarissa's instincts were right, and soon the two were inseparable. Renteria named the dog Rakkasan, the nickname for his 187th Infantry regiment. Within months, Renteria felt his aggression and hyper-vigilance subsiding. He also slept better and felt more open to connecting with others.
Black got the idea for Pets for Vets in 2009, while volunteering at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Long Beach, California. When she brought her Malamute mix, Bear, with her to spend time with veterans experiencing PTSD and other conditions, she noticed that the dog had a calming effect on them. "I saw their faces and I had a lightbulb moment," Black says. She knew that up to 4 million unwanted dogs and cats end up in animal shelters each year, and many are eventually euthanized. Why not place these animals in the homes of veterans who could find comfort in their company?
Black—who has a degree in animal science from Cornell University and a masters in anthrozoology from Canisius College—realized that the right preparation would be essential, for both the animal and its new owner. "Getting a dog can reduce stress," she says. "But it has to be the right dog. I asked myself, how can I help these vets find their best companion?"' Our approach helps create what we call the Super Bond™ - an intense, immediate connection that helps create a lasting relationship between the veteran and his or her animal companion.”
Pets for Vets founder Clarissa Black, with Iraq War veteran Adam
Renteria and his dog, Rakkasan
In 2009, she set up Pets for Vets as a nonprofit organization with a $3,000 loan from her parents, Steve and Ann Black, who quickly became two of the organization's most active supporters. As the organization started to pick up publicity, donations for Pets for Vets—along with offers to start chapters around the country—began flooding in, from individuals and corporations alike.
In no time, it seemed, a grassroots effort had sprouted a real organization. "We decided we needed a more formal approach to managing Pets for Vets' money, so that it could grow while being readily available to help support the work of chapters around the country," Steve Black says. He contacted his longtime Merrill Lynch Financial Advisor, Matt Dupuis, of The Dupuis Group, for help. Dupuis helped them think through everything it would take to run the nonprofit, including how they could set up a working capital account to manage their day-to-day cash flow needs. For large purchases, he suggested they consider a Bank of America line of credit. He also offered them guidance on how they could invest their assets for potential future growth. "It's having a huge impact on people's lives," says Dupuis. "As an advisor, I don't think you can be involved in anything more fulfilling than that."
Renteria, returning home from Iraq, was greeted by his son, Aj.
To date, Pets for Vets (www.petsforvets.com) has made more than 300 matches and has 30 chapters nationwide, a figure that Clarissa expects to rise dramatically. Her goal is to serve all 50 states and to help as many veterans as she can. Like many people her age, she has found that aligning her passion and her professional expertise with her desire to make a difference can be very satisfying. This is now her full-time job, but it doesn't feel like working. "I'm doing something I love, and I'm helping others," she says.
Renteria says Rakkasan has played a big role in managing his PTSD symptoms. He's now working on a master's degree in military social work, and he plans to become an advocate for returning veterans. "Without Rakkasan, I don't know where I'd be," he says. "But with him, I can tell you that I'm in a much better place."