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LEWISTON – Heart of Niagara Animal Rescue was the vision of four Niagara County women who met while volunteering together at the Niagara County SPCA and left to form their own not-for-profit organization with their own vision and goals.

Since incorporating in January, they have adopted out 100 animals, more than double their annual projection, and invested their time and their money, along with donations from the public and a network of more than 60 volunteers to save the lives of homeless, abandoned and discarded dogs.

“There are so many animals that need homes that we are trying to find homes for,” said Linda van Harssel, of Lewiston, Heart of Niagara media director and one of the four founding members. “We never have enough foster (homes), and this is not just us, but shelters across the country. There are so many animals that are euthanized simply because there is no room for them and no one is there to take them.”

She said their garages and basements are full of donated items, such as food and crates and blankets. The next step is to purchase a building, which will be used to house transitioning dogs, store materials, hold staff meetings and serve as a place to come and meet, and then hopefully adopt, animals.

Van Harssel said the organization hopes to achieve this through the “Holiday Wishes Come True” grant sponsored by the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Petco Foundation. The top grant is $100,000, with a second prize of $50,000 and third prize of $25,000. Additional runner-up grants range from $5,000 to $10,000. Winners will be announced this month.

DeGeneres encouraged qualified animal rescue groups to submit their best animal success stories to make their case. Heart of Niagara shared stories of discarded animals that were to be euthanized, animals rescued from puppy mills and nursed back to life, and another who was viciously attacked and blinded in one eye. All were rescued and have found new lives in their new “forever homes,” said van Harssel.

She said all the stories are important, but the one that touches them all the most was the story of Faith, the first dog they rescued.

“Faith was our very first, our number one rescue. She was a mom who was going to be euthanized. She was in an overcrowded shelter, and she had a litter of puppies, and we took them all in,” van Harssel said. She said they all received 24-hour care from a veterinarian technician at the Village Vet in Lewiston. Faith survived, but some of her puppies was just too ill and too weak, she said.

“It was very sad, but some survived. Two puppies and Faith are each living happily in their own new homes,” van Harssel said. “When we named her – it was faith in our organization and faith in what we are doing, and that’s why we named her Faith.”

Other founding members are Kathy Nowakowski, of Niagara Falls, who serves as managing director; Cyndi Luna, of Lewiston; and Margie Kwiatkowski, of Lockport.

To see all the rescue stories of Molly, Shelby, Gracie and Dusty, or learn more about Heart of Niagara, visit its website at www.heartofniagara.org.