A pet project comes to fruition

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Evergreen resident establishes nonprofit that offers grants for pet health insurance

By Stephanie Alderton

Evergreen resident Patty Potter once was rescued from an attacking bear by her dog Bella. Now she’s honoring Bella’s memory by helping other people rescue dogs.

Potter started the Bella Pet Insurance Fund three years ago as a national nonprofit that provides health insurance grants to young people who want to rescue dogs. After three years of raising money and slowly gaining public recognition, the organization is ready to start helping more dog rescuers.

Two years ago, Potter was hiking in the mountains with Bella when they came across a mother bear and her offspring. 

“I got between a mother and her cubs,” Potter said. “And she (Bella) just protected me.” 

Bella launched herself at the mother bear, buying Potter precious seconds to escape. Bella then somehow escaped from the boisterous bruin and followed Potter home. 

A year later, Bella was diagnosed with cancer. Potter was able to pay for chemotherapy, but wasn’t able to save her life. But the experience did make her feel sorry for all the people, especially young adults, who didn’t have the resources to help their pets the same way.

The idea to start the nonprofit came to Potter after her dog was diagnosed with cancer a year after saving her life. She was able to pay for Bella’s chemotherapy, though it didn’t ultimately save her life, and she felt sorry for pet owners who lacked the resources to get treatment for ailing animals. She also wanted to do something to commemorate her beloved dog.

“I thought, ‘What can I do?’ ” she said. “Put up a statue?”

Instead, she decided to start the nonprofit in Bella’s name. The organization began with two board members, including Ron Altman of Mountain Parks Veterinary Hospital in Evergreen, and two financial consultants. Potter, who started out with very little knowledge of the insurance business, found her project to be more complicated than she expected.

“I had no idea it would be this difficult,” she said.

Altman helped her understand the details of pet insurance, which he learned through his veterinary practice. Bella ended up partnering with Pet Plan, a Pennsylvania-based insurance company that was voted the nation’s best by North Shore Animal League America, the largest no-kill animal shelter in the world.

Potter spread the word about her organization by word of mouth through local animal shelters. She also received help from several friends, including filmmaker John Rokosny, whom she “met on the street” in New York City and who made a short video for her website.

So far, Bella has awarded seven grants, all to people between the ages of 18 and 30 who adopted dogs from shelters or rescues. To qualify for a grant, potential pet owners have to give back to the organization, either through $5 monthly donations or volunteer work. Potter said she wants to help young people learn financial responsibility while encouraging them to adopt pets.

She also wants to raise awareness of pet insurance options.

“People do not know that pet insurance companies have gotten really good,” she said.

Both Potter and Altman cited statistics showing that animals with pet insurance are healthier than those without.

“Veterinary medicine has the same opportunities as human medicine,” Altman said. “Insurance can save a lot of pets’ lives.”

Bella is the only nonprofit that currently offers pet-insurance grants. For now, there is no application process for the grants, so awardees find out about Bella through word of mouth. Thebellapetinsurancefund.com also offers a 10 percent discount on Pet Plan insurance.

But Potter has much bigger goals in sight. Recently, the Suzanne Feld Zalk Charitable Trust awarded Bella a grant that will cover its operating costs for the next five years. Potter intends to use the extra money to create an application process for the grants, clearing the way for many more people to receive pet insurance. She hopes to have an application process on her website by January.

“The ultimate goal is (to provide insurance for) all pets, all ages,” she said.

Altman said he would have considered that an impossible goal three years ago, when Potter first told him about her idea.

But after seeing what she has accomplished since then, he thinks differently.

“I think she will do it,” he said. “She’s a very persistent lady.”