Story and photos by Susan Mikula Campbell
All dogs go to heaven, of course. Still, it's pretty difficult to lose a loved pet, especially if there's a chance that pet might be saved by veterinary care.
A retired Niagara Falls couple has made it their mission to provide Hope Before Heaven for people who cannot afford emergency care for their pets. Linda and Gary Hepler's all-volunteer group became official in January.
The couple will be among the representatives of non-profit groups who will be manning booths to raise funds at this weekend's Peach Festival in Lewiston.
The Heplers have put in countless hours for their cause in memory of their sheltie Aasha, Gary's medical assisting service dog that died last December.
"We had her from birth, and she was 9 years old when we lost her," remembered Linda, noting that for pet lovers, their animals are like their children. "They know how hard it is. They know the loss. They know the hurt."
The couple had rushed their dog to a veterinarian when she became ill. While there was no saving their beloved Aasha, they noticed a young couple come in with a dog. Told that expensive emergency surgery was needed, the young couple decided they couldn't afford it and had the dog euthanized.
It made Linda mad and she decided to do something about it. After all, Aasha translates to hope.
"If something good had to come out of losing our beautiful girl, this was what it was," she said.
The Heplers started collecting donations for Hope Before Heaven in May, and their group has assisted seven pet owners in Niagara and Erie counties so far. Last week alone, their group assisted owners of two cats and one dog. One of the cats had pneumonia, the other a jaw infection. The dog had sores and tumors.
Hope Before Heaven will pay 50 percent of a dog or cat's emergency treatment, not to exceed $3,000, and paid directly to the vet.
The Hepler's booth at the Peach Festival will feature a collection jar and assortment of pet toys, catnip pillows and pet-themed items. Gary Hepler takes donations of balls from local tennis centers and creates an assortment of dog pull toys, also sold to benefit the cause.
The Heplers also set up their booth at the Lewiston Art Festival this year and found "the people were absolutely wonderful." They also found a much-appreciated resource in Lewiston's new vet Dr. Kristen Ruest of the Village Vet of Lewiston, who they say is always available to answer their questions and work with patients they send her way.
The Heplers say they have been inundated with calls requesting assistance. Those who don't qualify for Hope Before Heaven (such as those wanting routine dental cleaning or spaying) are referred to other organizations that might be able to help.
"We have grown so fast it is amazing," Linda said. "We have had so many people come up to us and say thank you for what you're doing."
The Heplers have been busy through the summer months collecting funds at various weekend events. Among places they plan to set up their booth are: Sam's Club in Niagara Falls, Sept. 14 and 15; the Lewiston Harvest Festival, Sept. 28 and 29; and the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls, Nov. 2 and 3.
There is also a new furry face at the Hepler home, another collie named Shayna. The 10-month-old puppy will eventually be trained to follow in Aasha's pawprints as a service dog. Linda, pointing out that every dog has its own personality and place in your heart, noted that, "She's a real sweetheart."
For more information about the group, visit www.hopebeforeheaven.com.