The Pet Press December 2008 cover story.
How Rescuing Her Dog Inspired Her to Create
Operation Blankets of Love
By Lori Golden
Eileen Smulson was never an animal person. Growing up in Hillside, New Jersey, her closest relationship with animals were the goldfish she would win at the local carnival and the baby turtles she watched race around her kitchen. “It never occurred to me to have a dog or a cat,” says Eileen. “Even though some of my friends had dogs, it never entered my mind to even ask my mom if I could have a dog.”
Fast forward years later to her life in Los Angeles with her husband Brad, who always loved animals, and Eileen still felt no connection to them. Not even when they rescued Sammy, a stray cat found in their yard. While Brad took care to feed him and keep him inside most of the time, Eileen never felt close to Sammy. But because they never had children and Brad always wanted a dog, Eileen decided she would try to make her husband happy and see if she might somehow change her mind. She went with him to the animal shelters and visited the dogs. She even pet them. But eventually they stopped going because she still never felt anything for the dogs.
As a reader of The Pet Press, Eileen began to learn about rescue and understand the concept of what it might feel like to rescue an animal and have it become part of the family. “I didn’t really understand how it felt. I knew the concept. But it was more intellectual. It wasn’t emotional for me at all,” she explains.
Then one day five years ago, while at the Petco in Porter Ranch, Brad and Eileen looked at some dogs that were up for adoption by a rescue group that was there. That was where they found Ginger, the only dog in the group that wasn’t barking. “It was adorable,” says Eileen. “While Brad held her I sat there and pet her, but I still felt absolutely nothing. Brad explained to the lady who had rescued all these dogs that I had never had a dog. He said he didn’t know how we’d feel about it and was conflicted about taking it home because he’d hate to have to return it. This woman, however, felt certain that with time I would learn to love the dog. She suggested we take the dog home for a week or two and if it didn’t work out we could bring her back.” (Notice how Eileen refers to the dog as ‘it.’) Operation get Eileen to love a dog began.
“I was so nervous I had an anxiety attack. I immediately told Brad that the dog couldn’t sleep in the house. It would have to sleep outside in its crate. After that first night Brad insisted the dog had to be inside, but would still be in its crate, with the door open. The dog cried all night, so Brad brought her into our bedroom and put her in a pet bed we had, with his hand dangling down the entire night so she could smell his hand. By the second night the dog was in our bed.”
They took the dog to a vet to make sure she was healthy and found out she was a terrier-poodle mix, about five months old. She had been found on Pearblossom Highway with another puppy, and her name was Ginger.
Within a week Eileen decided she liked Ginger, and the adoption process was completed. Brad, meanwhile, knew his wife well, and after a few months decided the best way for Eileen to bond with Ginger was to take a training class with her. “So off we went to a beginning class at J9’s K9’s,” Eileen remembers. “Following that first 6-week course, Ginger and I went then went on to intermediate and advanced training classes, then tricks, then games and then outdoor agility. I fell in love with her so much. Having that training and understanding more about what a dog can give to you I finally realized I was in love with her and began calling her my baby. Ginger filled my life with such joy and happiness, having come to me at a very difficult time in my life. Brad knew that having a dog would really help me and heal me. Was he ever right!”
“Because of Ginger I’ve met more people either with dogs of their own or who were looking for dogs like mine,” Eileen continues. “Through The Pet Press I got involved with Kids ‘N Pets and brought Ginger to teach young children how to care for and love animals. Then I found out about Delta Society, and how to certify Ginger to be a therapy dog, which allowed us to visit Senior Centers. We also took a Dancing with Dogs class, and got involved with a READ program, where little kids read out loud to the dog. It was as if I couldn’t get enough of doing things with my dog. All of this happened during our first few years together.”
And then last January, 2008, while visiting the new West Valley Animal Shelter with her best friend, Eileen felt that some of the smaller dogs were probably cold because of where they were being showcased in the shelter. “I sent an email to Ed Boks, the General Manager of the LA Animal Shelters expressing my concern for these animals and heard back within 24 hours from Jan Selder, then the head of the West Valley Shelter. She said that when they heard my complaint about where the little dogs were kept they immediately moved them inside and she invited me to take a private tour of the shelter.”
“I had noticed a sign that said the shelter needed blankets and towels and found out that they had no budget for these kind of items. I told her that I couldn’t picture my dog Ginger, who I rescued, for one moment sitting or sleeping on a cold cement floor. When I told Jan that I would try to collect 50 – 100 blankets and towels for her shelter, she told me to ‘go for it.’ Within 24 hours I had a business plan. I knew I was going to help that shelter. Operation Blankets of Love was born.”
“Having worked 18 years for several non-profit ‘people’ charities as a Director of Community and Corporate Development, I used my past experience as a professional fundraiser, and started with a flyer asking for ‘old or new blankets, towels and comforters needed for the local LA animal shelters.’ I started with my groomer, my vet and my local pet supply store, and gave them my flyer and a cardboard box for collections. And then expanded to some of the advertisers’ locations from The Pet Press.”
“Within one month I brought 400 items to the West Valley Shelter, who were overjoyed with my efforts,” Eileen continues. “Two weeks later I had collected another 400 items, but this time they suggested I bring some to the East Valley Shelter. As word got out that I was a person who could help fulfill the needs of the shelters with these blankets and towels, I had added 20 drop-off locations and collected over 3,000 items.”
“It was a win-win situation for everyone. The stores were getting new customers as more and more people began dropping off items for the shelters and the animals in the shelters were getting the items they needed. And it was a win-win for me because I was spreading my message to provide comfort for the animals so they would become more adoptable. Not one store turned me down as a drop off location. And within little more than a month I was able to help all of the LA City Shelters, giving each of them 500-600 donated items. This quickly expanded to the LA County Shelters as well. I never went to any shelter without an introduction from another supervisor, because I always wanted to talk to the top person to ascertain their needs.”
As a personal witness to what Eileen was doing, I was truly impressed with how fast Operation Blankets of Love was taking off. She expanded her outreach efforts and began calling rescue groups listed in The Pet Press. Not a shy person, she also reached out to local newspapers.
“One of the people I pitched was Dennis McCarthy from the LA Daily News. I left a message on his voice mail and got a response immediately. The article he ran about the program, which included my phone number and email address, elicited more than 200 requests from people wanting to donate items. The phone was ringing off the hook, making me realize that this was something I needed to continue and expand to other areas.”
“Operation Blankets of Love has succeeded beyond my expectations,” exclaims Eileen. “The outpouring of giving from the local community was so successful that I wanted to use the same strategy in areas outside of LA. I’ve now been to Ventura County, Santa Barbara, Orange County and Santa Clarita, sharing the message of the needs of their shelters to the animal lovers in their communities. They responded 150%.”
More than just collecting blankets and towels, Eileen has gotten callers to start their own blanket drives where they work. And she has reached out to schools, girl scout and cub scout troops, and even synagogues. “Being an ex-schoolteacher, I now speak at schools, doing an educational program about responsible pet care and the joys of having an animal, including explaining the problems of pet overpopulation and the importance of rescuing animals from shelters. I feel when you can teach young children about these things, because they are our future, there will be less problems with animal cruelty and more understanding of the role animals play in our lives.”
“Next I decided I wanted to reach out to the Seniors and now have a Retirement Village in Laguna Hills, who have a canine club and a cat club, doing blanket drives. From the young to the old all of these communities are getting together to help the animals. I’ve even started this at restaurants, with The Cheesecake Factory being the first to have their own blanket drive.”
“What I now do is give these participants a Certificate of Appreciation from Operation Blankets of Love and follow up with local papers to do stories about them, spreading the message even more, always with an emphasis on how they are helping the animals. So far no one has turned me down.”
“It’s been almost a year now and Operation Blankets of Love has collected close to 20,000 items,” Eileen says proudly. “People have been so generous - in addition to used blankets, comforters and towels, I’ve also gotten new items and pet beds. People are also donating pet treats and toys and leashes, pet clothes, cat carriers and cat scratchers, and one person even donated a cat tree. I’m also finding from the animal rescue groups I’ve donated to that they are so happy to get, in addition to the blankets and towels, dog treats and toys, because it leaves them with more money to spend on rescuing the animals from the shelters.”
“Now, in order to expand to other parts of the country, I’ve become a non-profit organization. My hope is to get corporate sponsorship which will enable me to reach more people to help save more lives. The farther we get from Los Angeles, the greater the need is to help the animals. Funding is important so I can ship items out to other areas, as well as get a storage facility for all of the donations. Currently my garage is filled to the ceiling. As fast as I get things delivered, I keep getting more items that replace them. And I always have a surplus of at least 1,000 blankets and towels that can be used for emergencies, like when the washer and dryer broke at one of the shelters, or most recently, for the animals who were brought to the Mission Hills Shelter during the disastrous Sylmar fire.”
“My goal is to reach every corner of the country as a nationwide charity, and to inspire people to help the animals in a way they never thought was possible. It doesn’t matter what economic level you are – everyone has an old towel or blanket, so anyone can become involved. If you can donate something new, that’s wonderful, but everyone who wants to make a difference, can, no matter what their background or age.”
“If I never had adopted Ginger, none of this would have happened. In the beginning I said that when I went to the shelters to look at animals I felt nothing. Now when I walk through a shelter, I look at all the dogs and feel my heart breaking as I see them in their cages. I feel now what my husband always felt. I feel almost what the animals are feeling, and now I’m so emotionally tied to all of them. It truly brings me joy to see the animals on the blankets that I’ve brought them, knowing they are in less pain and more comfortable, thus making them happier and more adoptable. It has totally changed who I am and how I feel about animals. Because of Ginger, we are bringing comfort to animals and saving lives together.”
To find out how you can donate, volunteer or get involved with Operation Blankets of Love, visit Operationblanketsoflove.org, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call Eileen at 818-402-6586.