Melissa Bielawski remembers the first time she saw Ollie, a 6-year-old white Labrador-mix. She was volunteering for a rescue organization providing foster care for abused dogs, and someone gave her a picture and asked her to foster him.
“He had lived on a chain in a driveway in North Carolina and was in extremely bad condition,” she recalled. “He was filthy and emaciated. He had heartworms and Lyme disease. He could walk but was very weak, but there was something about him that I just said, ‘Yes.’ ”
That “yes” was the spark that birthed Ollie’s Angels Animal Rescue, a Greenlawn-based nonprofit that Bielawski launched in January 2016, guided by the mission statement “Saving Lives Four Paws at a Time.” It is giving new life to scores of mistreated dogs, many on death row.
“We believe that every animal deserves a second chance and a new beginning regardless of age, breed, special needs or physical condition,” said Bielawski, whose group has rescued and found adoptive homes for more than 175 dogs within the past year. “Thousands of dogs face unnecessary euthanasia every day, and our vision is to save the lives of these animals in high-kill shelters throughout the country.”
Ollie’s Angels provides temporary homes, flea and tick treatment, deworming and other basic medical treatment for purebred and mixed-breed dogs that are transported from North Carolina, Alabama and South Carolina to Long Island for foster care and adoption. Many of them were scheduled to be put down.
It all started on April 12, 2014, when Ollie was brought to Long Island from a shelter in Cumberland County, North Carolina, in the southeast section of the state. Bielawski, 44, a former high school English teacher in the Massapequa School District who now runs SAT and Regents prep courses at libraries across Long Island, took the dog to her home in Greenlawn, which she shares with husband Michael, their three daughters — Maya, 13, Lily, 11, and Avery, 9 — and Lucy, the family’s yellow Labrador-hound mix that Bielawski said she adopted six years ago as a puppy from Unleashed, a New York City-based rescue organization.
“He immediately put one paw on my shoulder and the other on my other shoulder and leaned his head on me,” Bielawski said of Ollie. “I loved him right away. He’s my boy. I said, ‘I’m keeping him.’ ”
Bielawski grew up around dogs, and setting up her own rescue operation had been on her mind for years. “It was something I thought about constantly, yet I always told myself it was an impossibility because I didn’t have the money,” she said.
In high school she got some experience as a rescue volunteer and working in a store that sold puppies. She learned to process applications, do home visits and write profiles of dogs that were posted on social media.
“When I really saw how dogs were treated behind the scenes I was horrified by what I saw, where they came from and how they were housed while waiting to be sold,” Bielawski said. “That’s when I became a big rescue advocate.”
With contacts she made while volunteering, Bielawski established a network of volunteers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama, where she said shelters “have a huge problem with overpopulation.”
She said in her blog that family members helped her realize that she should focus on animal rescues. “Rescue has always been my passion, and throughout my life I’ve always found different ways to be involved, adopting dogs and supporting rescues,” she said.
Honoring a friend
Bielawski said a friend’s death from cancer helped push her to set out on her own. Shelly Dana, her Omicron Xi sorority sister at SUNY Oswego, “was a vibrant person,” Bielawski said. “When she died on Dec. 27, 2015, I said that in honor of my friend I will go for it, despite being incredibly scared to follow my dream.”
Foster homes are the bedrock of Ollie’s Angels, and the group accepts dogs in all conditions. “We take dogs that have heartworm, Lyme disease, mange,” Bielawski said. “We even had our first amputee last month, a black Labrador-mix called Blizzard that was hit by a car.”
Blizzard lost his rear right leg and is in foster care. Ollie takes medications every day to treat arthritis, hip dysplasia, high blood pressure and periodic neurological episodes.
Ollie’s Angels’ rescues are cared for in about 10 foster homes on Long Island and 10 in the South. Stacey Clayton, of Greenlawn, is one of those caregivers. She and her husband, Ken, and their three school-age daughters have fostered seven dogs. They adopted the seventh, Winston, an all-white Pointer-mix with rust-brown eyes and ears that was found as a puppy on the side of a highway. He was in a shelter in Dillon County in South Carolina for 15 months.
“There really is such a crisis when it comes to overcrowded shelters and homeless dogs,” said Clayton, 45, an art teacher in the Malverne School District. “The only way we can improve the situation is if people are willing to open their homes to these dogs. When they are adopted, they know you took them in and we can feel the warmth from that dog. They know they have finally made it home.”
Foster and adoptive families must meet specific requirements. If there are other dogs in the home, they must be spayed or neutered; someone must be at home at all times if fostering a puppy; dogs must have access to a fenced yard; they cannot be crated all day and must be treated like a member of the family.
Adoptive families must submit to a home visit, a check of personal and veterinary references and have the patience to work with their new pet to help him or her adjust. Applications are available at olliesangelsanimalrescue.org
Bielawski said puppies are usually adopted within one or two weeks, and that older dogs find homes in about two weeks.
Bielawski said the nonprofit’s foster program provides in-depth information about each dog’s individual personality and specific needs. The profile is then paired with the organization’s extensive screening process to select a perfect home for each animal. The nonprofit’s strict health protocol includes vaccines, spay and neuter, microchipping and a two-week quarantine before they are brought to foster homes on Long Island.
Ollie’s Angels pays for all medical treatment during foster care. Bielawski uses the veterinary services of West Hills Animal Hospital in Huntington and Long Island Spay and Neuter in Medford.
“We do our best to ensure the health of our dogs,” Bielawski said. “My goal is to bring them here healthy. I personally meet every dog that comes to us, because I want to hug and kiss them.”
Bielawski said a shortage of foster homes has forced her to turn away some dogs.
“To continue our work we are in constant need of funding and loving foster homes on Long Island and in the South,” Bielawski said.
Bielawski runs Ollie’s Angels with the help of her five-member board of directors, which she leads, and holds fundraisers to support her nonprofit’s rescue efforts. An annual get-together featuring a silent auction for owners and their adopted dogs is held in September at a private home in Huntington. On Feb. 15, the John Engeman Theatre in Northport will stage “The Full Monty” at 8 p.m. Tickets are $71, with a portion of sales going to the nonprofit. The code for tickets to the events is OLLIESANGELS.
The families that look after the dogs share Bielawski’s rescue-and-foster mission.
“I would take in all the animals I could,” said Kathy Moyka, 45, of Centerport, a Wall Street program manager. She and her husband, Bart, and daughter, Grace, 13, have fostered seven dogs since Ollie’s Angels was founded, including one that was malnourished. “Foster families are saving these animals that end up in kill shelters if they are not adopted within 30 days,” Moyka added. “I have a problem with that. If I can save one at a time I’ll save one at a time.”
Cathy Coughlin, 37, a homemaker who lives in Greenlawn with her husband, John, and their three children, in November adopted Franklin, a black Labrador-mix puppy that had scars on his back, apparently from burns.
“I wish I could do more,” Coughlin said. “It’s really great, she’s providing this service for people.”
Sometimes that service profoundly alters the lives of the adoptive families. Stephanie Coleman, 43, a CT scan technologist who lives in Ocean Beach, marvels at a change in her autistic son, Wally, 13, since Diego, a Chihuahua-dachsund mix, joined the family — which includes husband Walter and son, Joey, 11 — on Memorial Day weekend in 2016. Diego, brought in to be Wally’s companion, was there for two days when for the first time Wally, who Coleman said “had not spoken a word for 12 summers,” had a full conversation with an adult.
“And not only did he speak, but he spoke very well,” Coleman said of the conversation with a ferryboat captain. They talked about Diego, and Coleman said her son has since had four other chats with adults, but only those with dogs. “He felt secure; he felt he had something in common with everybody else,” Coleman said, adding that Diego wakes Wally up in the morning and goes to bed with him every night.
“It shows the importance of an animal for someone with special needs,” Coleman said. “Ollie’s Angels has been a huge part of our blessings.”
Bielawski knows well animals’ influence and healing effect, especially in her own family. In December 2015, she was recovering from surgery and was in bed with pneumonia. Despite his arthritis and hip issues, she said Ollie struggled upstairs to visit her and wouldn’t leave her side. “He put a paw on top of my bandaged hand,” Bielawski recalled. “I cannot tell you how much I love him.”
That moment inspired the Ollie’s Angels logo: a dog’s paw reaching toward a waiting hand. Bielawski’s devotion to dogs in need inspires her eldest daughter, Maya.
“I don’t know a lot of adults in my life who would do what my mother does,” she said. “It’s nice to see someone who really cares, and I’m glad it’s my mother.”
Sign me up
Anyone who fosters or adopts becomes part of the Ollie’s Angels family, Melissa Bielawski said. There is a need for adoptive families, but there is an even greater need for those able to foster dogs waiting to be placed in “forever” homes, she added.
The rescue group also looks to volunteers to help check references, visit prospective adoptive homes and transport dogs to veterinary visits. The nonprofit could use donations to help pay for medicines, veterinary care, transportation and other costs the organization incurs in its rescue operations on Long Island and in the South.
Bielawski, founder of Ollie’s Angels Animal Rescue, wants volunteers who appreciate her labor of love and the organization’s motto: “Saving lives four paws at a time.”
“I need people who are responsible, people-friendly, obviously animal lovers,” said Bielawski, who hopes to expand her efforts in a bigger space. “I would love to have a center to operate from on Long Island and in South Carolina. That would be my dream.”
For more information, visit olliesangelsanimalrescue.org; send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org; or call 516-695-2487.
You might consider . . .
Last Chance Animal Rescue in Southampton, which is seeking donations and people to foster or adopt cats and dogs that are rescued from “kill” facilities. Adoption Days are held every Saturday and Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Petco locations in Patchogue and Selden, and every second and fourth Saturday at Petco in Commack. An Adoption Day is slated for Jan. 28 at Petco in Riverhead. Other planned events:
Jewels for Paws, Feb. 12;
Spay-ghetti dinner, Feb. 16;
Paws in the Park Dog Walk, Red Creek Park in Hampton Bays, May 20;
Contact: 631-478-6844; lcarescue.org; or email email@example.com
Kids Adopt a Shelter, a nonprofit that encourages children to adopt local shelters and donate food, blankets, toys and other items to animals at the facilities awaiting adoption. The group also helps shelter animals find “forever” homes. It was started in 2011 by Sean Posner, of Massapequa, who wanted a way to honor the memory of his dog, Moose, that died of cancer.
Contact: kidsadoptashelter.org; firstname.lastname@example.org
For more volunteer information and opportunities, contact the LONG ISLAND VOLUNTEER CENTER at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org
Ten years ago, Nicole Deceglie asked her two daughters what they wanted: a brother, a sister or a puppy. The choice was unanimous.
“We want a puppy,” she said they replied.
“And then I found out I was pregnant,” said Deceglie, 46, an occupational therapist who lives in Greenlawn with her husband, Joe, and children Daniella, 15, Sophia, 12, Joseph, 10, and Daisy, a blond poodle-Shih-Tzu mix.
Puppies are often underfoot in the Deceglie household. Deceglie is the adoption coordinator for Ollie’s Angels Animal Rescue and fosters many homeless and abandoned puppies while they wait to be adopted. She has had at least 20 in her home since her friend and the nonprofit’s founder, Melissa Bielawski, established the group in 2016.
Deceglie said she “does a little bit of everything — reference checks, home visits, whatever. I wanted to be involved in something like this.”
Although her mother owned a pet store, bred poodles and there were always dogs, cats, horses and exotic parrots around when she was growing up, Deceglie said she “went back and forth” about fostering. What if she got attached to an animal in what is known as “foster failure” and couldn’t bear to part with them?
“As new puppies come in, I give them a bath and they snuggle with you,” she said. “That’s why it’s so hard to give them up. I’ve almost failed many times, but you move on, and when a family comes you’re happy for [the dogs] because you know they’ll have a great life.”
Deceglie said she has fostered mostly Labrador mixes, hound mixes, coonhounds, beagles, pointers and border collies. “They’re all just good dogs,” she said. “The ones that have been abandoned in the middle of nowhere, like in a parking lot, they’re the sweetest things.”
She said the group’s first puppy, a black Labrador-mix, was perfect. “Well-behaved, sweet,” Deceglie recalled. “He was adopted quickly, like in a week. The next one came and then the next one.”
One of her newest charges, a shepherd-beagle mix puppy named Josie who was to be euthanized, was recently being prepared to meet a prospective adopter.
She said her family watches “Dog Whisperer” on the National Geographic channel for tips on raising dogs, and that Ollie’s Angels tries to “rescue these animals who don’t have a voice and can’t say ‘help.’”
“I definitely want to keep doing what we’re doing,” Deceglie said. “I’d love for [Bielawski] to own a shelter so we could take on more dogs.”
— Merle English