Her tools are a sturdy plastic mold, a pencil stub, some water and fine-grained mortar mix scooped out of 60-pound sacks.
With these humble parts, applied with skill and diligence, retired art teacher Mary VandenBergh of the Town of Tonawanda has created and sold thousands of cement stones in the shape of a large paw print. She has donated every cent of the $66,500 she has raised to the Pet Emergency Fund, which can help pay for emergency care with veterinarians, mostly in small local practices, who belong to the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society.
Pet Emergency Fund President Susan Mineo, DVM, said the donations that VandenBergh collects in exchange for her creations are “the largest single ongoing contribution to PEF outside of memorial gifts and estate bequests.”
VandenBergh, a lifelong animal lover with a self-deprecating sense of humor, downplays her work.
“I use very technical tools – a bucket, a stick and a pencil stub,” she said, smiling. “Nothing but the best!”
The final products are simple and strikingly beautiful molded sculptures, about 9 inches square and 2 inches thick. At 9 pounds, the stones can function as doorstops or garden steppingstones or just as indoor or outdoor decor. Except for the stones that include an animal’s photo, encased in an oval plastic envelope, sunk into the surface of the stone and sealed with caulk, the stones are weather-resistant and can be left outside year-round.
VandenBergh, who retired from teaching art in the Alden schools, offers generic stones that say “I love my dog” or “You left paw prints on my heart” for $15 each at animal events. But she makes personalized stones to order. The animal’s name is neatly lettered onto the paw, and a red heart-shaped jewel in the center of the paw raises the price $3. A stone that includes a photo of the animal can be made for a $25 donation. When a stone is purchased as a memorial to a deceased pet, VandenBergh can inscribe the pet’s dates of birth and death into opposite toes of the paw, making a striking personalized display.
“But they’re not just for memorials; plenty of people get them for living dogs, too,” she said. “They are a nice gift for a puppy shower.”
VandenBergh has a paw print stone in her garden for Ernest Buford, her adopted 7-year-old red-tick coonhound, who greets visitors with an excited howl. She has paw prints for her previous dogs, now deceased, grouped together in another part of her garden.
Although the plaques are a beautiful and meaningful addition to any animal-lover’s home, the more important thing is what they represent.
The sale of the stones funds the Pet Emergency Fund, whose resources can help pay for “a one-time intervention in a life-threatening situation for an otherwise healthy pet,” according to the fund’s website. The fund is spent on veterinary care by any of about 175 veterinarians who belong to the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society. The veterinarians work in more than 70 mostly small practices in Erie and Niagara counties; a complete list of veterinarians who belong to the society can be found at www.nfvs.us.
VandenBergh’s plaques are on display in many of the veterinary offices whose members belong to the society. Each office holds its own PEF account, which is funded from the paw print stone orders placed by its clients, from a collection jar in the office, and from the general fund, which distributes money to its members once a year.
“When contributions are made to the PEF, donors can designate which hospital they wish their monies to be allocated,” said Nancy Fredrickson, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society.
People whose animals need emergency care they cannot afford may request assistance from the Pet Emergency Fund from their veterinarian, who will decide whether and how much funding they will be given, said Fredrickson.
“There isn’t a limit on the amount of money a client can receive,” she said. “It is up to the hospital. One interesting thing that has been done beginning this summer is that recipients are asked to sign a voluntary Pay-It-Forward pledge. It helps clients recognize that someone has helped their pet and hopefully they can do the same sometime in the future.”
VandenBergh had been creating paw print stones for a few years for another pet organization when she heard about the Pet Emergency Fund, a 501(c)(3) charity founded in 1999. “I just thought that was so cool,” she said. “I like that it is actually helping the animals that wouldn’t ordinarily be helped if their owners couldn’t pay. That was such an original thing, and nobody had done that before, and I wanted to get on the bandwagon.”
Besides dogs and cats, VandenBergh has created stones for hamsters, gerbils, mice, ferrets and rabbits. She even made one for a snake, impressing a small metal serpent shape she found at a garage sale into the cement of the paw. Now for animals without actual paws, such as birds or horses, she uses a pie tin to make a round stone. Ones made for horses can be impressed with a real horseshoe.
After taking orders at a few events that resulted in “impulse buys” that were never picked up, VandenBergh now gives out her card and asks people to call her the next day to place orders. She also encourages people to contact her through the Pet Emergency Fund’s website, petemergencyfund.org.
“We cherish Mary,” Susan Mineo, president of the fund, said in a statement. “Her dedication to animals and creative efforts on behalf of PEF come from a huge heart that firmly believes no viable pet in crisis should have to suffer untreated.”