At Richmond’s Helping Hands, pet owners’ financial situation won’t ever stand in the way of ensuring that animals receive the care they deserve.
While the walls of Helping Hands showcase accolades from prestigious media outlets and veterinary associations, it is the hand-written notes of thanks and saved lives alongside their awards that mean the most to every employee of Helping Hands.
Founded on the premise of giving animals the chance to live, despite their owners’ economic situation, Helping Hands helps save the lives of many animals in the Richmond area that would otherwise be euthanized. Their slogan, “Preventing Economic Euthanasia,” can be found on much of the animal surgical center and dentistry facility’s promotional material, and it is this sentiment that drives every employee of the facility.
“I like to say the names of the dogs when they come in, because I know they go through a lot,” said Veronica Gerber, marketing manager for Helping Hands. “We can be someone’s last hope.”
Gerber is an animal lover herself, as is demonstrated by her wrist tattoo of a paw print from a beloved animal. She embodies Helping Hands’ work not only in the community, but throughout the country. When she first learned of the group, Gerber was moved by stories in the media of their co-founder, Dr. Lori Pasternak. She knew she wanted to help Pasternak’s cause. In their time open, Helping Hands has seen people come from 38 states to have their pets treated at the facility. The doctors themselves come from all over the world, including one from Scotland.
The clinic has its roots in Carytown, and began with two working mothers who wanted to make a difference. Pasternak and Jacqueline Morasco had a vision for affordable treatment that first sparked their idea. Frustrated at the thought of turning clients away or euthanizing beloved pets because of expenses, Pasternak knew the system needed to change.
“She hated [the idea of] putting down pets for money, or lack thereof,” Gerber said. Pasternak’s husband devised a business model that became the template for the business. That vision for affordable treatment drives Helping Hands to this day.
When they first opened, the owners made a point to offer their services at flat rates, and work to save every animal. The staff worried about whether anyone would show up; not only did they need to find customers, but if they did, they weren’t sure whether the business model would be sustainable enough for the practice to last. Yet Helping Hands stuck true to their core mission, and slowly saw an influx of loyal customers.
Everything changed in 2012, when Good Morning America ran a story about their work. Gerber gets choked up to this day about it, as the national show echoed her love and compassion for all animals. Good Morning America chose Dr. Pasternak for their “Work with Me” segment, in which one of the anchors from the show visits a business and works with them for a day. Featuring Helping Hands with Dr. Pasternak as the star, viewers were not only educated about how stressful the job of running a low-cost veterinary service is, but also saw how caring Dr. Pasternak is for her patients.
Thanks to Good Morning America, Helping Hands saw a rapid increase in customers — and their clientele soon extended beyond the Richmond area. People began coming into Helping Hands from all over the country. Gerber remembers people traveling from New England just to get their animals’ teeth cleaned. The compassion shown daily at the clinic keeps people coming back. Clients fell in love not only with their highly professional and excellent doctors, but the facility’s mission, and their caring treatment of every animal.
When Gerber looks back at the story, she laughs at the pictures of Thor the chihuahua in Times Square. But as the story continues, she grows emotional as the video encompasses everything that Helping Hands is built on. She notes that Helping Hands’ attempt to value every animal even extends to their human employees; early in her time at the business, despite the facility’s manner of operation keeping it from having excess funds, Gerber received retirement options in a 401k. At Helping Hands, care and love are shown not just to the animals, but in all aspects of life.
“Helping Hands anchors me,” Gerber tells me. A native Philadelphian, she says she “wouldn’t be in Richmond without Helping Hands.” Gerber’s passion and excitement echoes throughout the facility, and it’s apparent that all the employees share her sentiment. The team jumps through hoops to ensure their goal of saving animals is met. While they are not a full veterinary service, they are often recommended as a solution to an ever-growing problem of cost-related euthanasia. By adhering to flat rates for surgeries and dental work, and choosing not to board animals, Helping Hands keeps the facility available for as many pets as possible without focusing on profits.
Business eventually outgrew their small, friendly original location in Carytown, which barely had enough room for three visitors in the lobby. Their new location near The Diamond boasts a spacious and vibrant waiting room, aimed at accommodating the nervous pet owners that walk into Helping Hands every day. The community surrounding their new location is the perfect space — nestled between the Richmond SPCA, Meals on Wheels, FeedMore (a local nonprofit), The Richmond Food bank, and the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, there wasn’t a better place for them to land.
While saving lifes is often stressful, a poodle named Chilly with blue hair and a pink tail made the workplace more cheerful during his life. With his loving gaze and playful demeanor, Chilly was the pet of a staff member, and was always in the office greeting people that walked in. Chilly himself was a celebrity before passing; he appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most expensive dog wedding. In typical Helping Hands fashion, this seemingly-ridiculous event in New York City raised $150,000 for the Humane Society of New York. The event was organized by Wendy Diamond, an animal welfare activist, to benefit the society. The wedding featured plenty of outrageous, expensive garments and an orchestra, and the event was topped off by a cake made by TLC’s Cake Boss, all kindly donated for the cause.
Gerber loves to reminisce about the experiences that Helping Hands has brought her, but the celebrations can only happen because of the sacrifices they’ve made for their mission. As she tells her stories, there are animals receiving life-saving surgery in the next room. “Every day I have been here, at least one animal is saved,” Gerber says. “Every day.”
Every morning, animals come through the wide doors at Helping Hands and line the hallway for the 7:30 am drop-off. Gerber uses this time to meet each furry friend, helping both pets and owners relax. The waiting area boasts numerous couches, TVs, a Wii gaming system, and puzzles, so owners can be comfortable while their best friends endure surgery or dental work.
This area, aptly named Chilly’s Chill Zone and Client Lounge, even includes a kitchen with refreshments for clients. It is in this area where guests often write their thanks to the doctors and staff at Helping Hands. It is difficult to read the many testimonials with a dry eye.
Today, Helping Hands boasts seven receptionists. It’s a long shout from 10 years ago, when only one employee handled all their desk work. The two surgery rooms are adjoined by a room for doctors and assistants to relax after performing operations. Animals have enough space in their kennels to be loved by the staff as they prepare for their treatment, and the attention to detail has trickled down through every aspect of their operation.
While Dr. Pasternak doesn’t work at the facility as often anymore, her vision with Morasco is still brought to life each day by the staff — and plenty of animals are benefiting from it. As the new year begins, non-emergency dental visits are already booked through May, so plan ahead to schedule a visit for your pet.
When Helping Hands began, they wondered if anyone would come. For 10 years now, that’s never been a problem. There are always animals in need of a helping hand.
Top Photo via Helping Hands