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AZ Pet Project Hero Awards 2018: A Volunteer's Perspective

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

On March 10th 2018 countless Valley animals were saved from the shelter system thanks to a phenomenal event hosted by Arizona Pet Project (formerly known as Friends of Animal Care and Control). The event, called The Hero Awards, is both a highly successful annual fundraiser and an acknowledgement of the importance of animals to our human existence...not to mention that it is a great excuse to dress up for a night of glitz and glamour while rubbing elbows with fellow animal lovers from all over the Valley.

Featured elements included adoptable puppies, courtesy of rescue organization: Almost There Foster Care, a raffle, both silent and live auctions for some really outstanding items, a beautiful banquet with a hosted bar, and the main attraction: The presentation of awards for our Heroes - including an award to humans who go above and beyond the call of duty for our animal friends, and the animals themselves, who earn awards in various categories. This year's animal categories included: Loyal Companion, Service to the Community, Animal Survivor, Animal Hero, and Over the Rainbow Bridge.

In addition to the many sponsors of the event, we were delighted to have some high-profile assistance joining us this year. Our honorary chair for the 2018 event was the Cat Daddy himself, Jackson Galaxy - the feline behaviorist known to many for his Animal Planet television shows "My Cat from Hell" and the newer program that premiered in November of 2017, "Cat vs. Dog". Jackson's focus is on increasing awareness about how to deepen the bond between humans and cats while decreasing shelter deaths.

The official Event Chair, Lindsay Benjamin, is on the Board of Directors for a non-profit organization called "People Saving Pets" whose mission is to decrease the number of animals dying in shelters and to support legislation that protects animals on a nationwide scale.

Rounding out the celebrity appeal of the evening, the event emcee was CBS 5 Meteorologist Ian Schwartz, who prior to focusing on meteorology was a reporter covering various animal-related stories to bring awareness of animal issues to the people.

Although she is not a celebrity nor high-profile person, my friend Michele Soto pours her whole heart and soul (it may be a trite and overused phrase, but in this case it's totally accurate) into coordinating this event and its volunteers every year, so she really deserves mention for pulling off such a successful event. She's an outright rock star and has really earned my admiration ten times over for what she does.

In case you are interested in directly checking the web page for this year's Hero Awards, here is a link for you:

On a personal note, this was my third straight year volunteering at the event and I love it more every year. My primary assignment this year was to "shadow" and be available to fulfill any and all needs for one of the honorees. I was so excited to be the "Hero Helper" tending to Cuffie: The only feline award-winner for this year's event. Later in the evening I was additionally commissioned to collect questions the attendees had written on index cards for Jackson Galaxy to answer. As I waited for Cuffie to arrive I took a few photos of people cuddling the adoptable puppies.

Traditionally, and this year was no exception, the first part of the evening is for honorees and attendees from the community to mingle in the lobby, admire the many items up for grabs in the silent auction, and enjoy circulating snacks and/or beverages from the hosted bar.

Each of the volunteers for the evening has a specific job to do during this time. Mine was to greet Cuffie and his people, present Cuffie with a harness and leash for his own safety while outside his carrier, help to fit him into his official Hero Cape, and generally offer any assistance.

Upon their arrival, I wanted to get a photo of Cuffie and his family with his placard. He was at the front of the carrier when I started taking the photo - but of course, I missed that!

Since I had his new harness, leash, and cape in hand I directed Cuffie's family to a quieter room (the volunteer room) so they would have a safe place to get him "dressed" - and also a quiet place for Cuffie in case he needed a break from the commotion.

Cuffie's dad Rick and his boy Davis teamed up (with a little help from me!) to get Cuffie into his harness and cape.

Cuffie was such a good sport about the whole thing! Once he was dressed and looking very dapper in his new cape, Cuffie and his family joined the rest of the event attendees and honorees in the lobby.

Cuffie, his dad Rick, and me in the lobby

For the first couple of hours we all mingled with the other animal lovers in our midst and enjoyed the auction items. Here are a few photos from that portion of the evening:

Incredibull Stella with her Volunteer Hero Helper: Ashsuire Forrest

Award Recipient: Nana - Proudly wearing her hero cape!

Volunteers Preparing to Sell Raffle Tickets

Cuffie's Boy Davis - Falling in Love with a Puppy

(His family adopted one, but I can't say for sure that it was this particular puppy.)

Michele - Hard at Work as Usual!

I had a chance to hold Cuffie while his family was busy!

When the guests were called in to the banquet room those of us working the event found a few minutes to goof around with the photo booth. This is just a few of us blowing off steam. The photo booth was courtesy of Pixster.

After returning our funny photo props we moved all the auction items to prepare them for distribution to the winners. This is always a crazy flurry of activity - but thankfully, it went pretty smoothly.

Next up: Break time! I really enjoyed getting to know Cuffie and his family, but I've gotta be honest: My favorite part of the evening was the actual awards ceremony portion - which volunteers generally miss because this is when we get to eat our dinner.

As the guests were finishing their dinners and chatting with others at their tables I collected the index cards containing questions for Jackson Galaxy and then instead of going out and having dinner I found a spot in the back of the room to sit quietly and observe the activities in the banquet room. Interspersed between breaks for the live auction (live auction items included fine art and vacation trips!) were the Hero Videos that AZ Pet Project had prepared for each of the honorees - and the presentation of the awards to each one.

Here's my disclaimer for this blog post. While I was playing "fly on the wall" in the back of the banquet room I shot video of the event - which includes video of the Hero Videos. The original videos were prepared by AZ Pet Project, but these are my "bootlegged" copies - shot from the back of the room with my smart phone trained on the screen in the front of the room. My copies of the Hero Videos are being used with permission from AZ Pet it's their content, but my filming of it.

Aside: Because of the limitations of my website (embedded content cannot be too large) all the videos I shot were too large to embed directly into my post so I had to upload them to my YouTube channel for inclusion here and then embed them.

First came the "Human Hero" Award Winners: The Van Es Family, consisting of Johnjay, Blake, Jake, Kemp, and Dutch. Johnjay is a popular radio host who (in conjunction with his family) created the hashtag #lovepup - helping bring awareness to fostering homeless animals and helping them find their forever homes. They promote adoption by using Johnjay's national platform via radio and social media.

Here is the Hero Video for the Van Es family:

The example of the Van Es family is truly inspiring, as they continue to help so many animals.

Next was the video and award presentation for Incredibull Stella the Pit Bull. Stella earned the "Loyal Companion" Award. Through her unwavering companionship she helped save a family that was being torn apart by cancer and depression - ultimately bringing one family member back from the brink of suicide.

Here is her Hero Video:

Incredibull Stella has quite the Internet presence and is a social media darling! She has her own Facebook account: and her own Instagram account: @incredibullstella . She even has her own coloring books! I know her family is incredibly grateful for her - and it was an honor to meet her.

The next honoree to receive an award was a very sweet dog named Nana. Nana was awarded the "Service to the Community" Award. Nana provides love therapy all over Arizona, often including comforting travelers at Sky Harbor Airport and giving love to students at Arizona State University. She is proclaimed to be an "old soul" - and after having met her I can understand why they make that claim.

Here is her Hero Video:

Nana gives back to her community with her love and her energy, spreading joy and sunshine wherever she goes! We should all be so generous!

The next animal to accept an award was BB Bear, who gained renown for his fighting spirit and inspiring will to live, earning him the "Animal Survivor" Award. As he was rehabilitating from having been beaten to the edge of death his story gained media attention and applications to adopt him poured in from all over the world - more than 200 of them!

Here's his Hero video:

Only one family could adopt BB Bear, but his resilient spirit inspired so many applications that many other animals were adopted in his place. His fight saved not just him, but hordes of others! He is a true hero!

Gone now, but not before inspiring police departments nationwide, Fozzie earned the "Over the Rainbow Bridge" Award. Fozzie functioned as the first full-time crisis-response dog in the country, working for the Scottsdale Police Department and helping to bring a calming energy to help public servants complete their often-stressful duties, including 911 Operators and other First Responders. He leaves a legacy for other canines to do the same kind of work, including Chase, who is training to walk in Fozzie's footsteps with the Scottsdale Police.

Here is Fozzie's Hero Video:

The extent of Fozzie's contribution to humanity may never truly be quantified. It's difficult to know how many people were helped during his time with the police force - because it was not only the first responders, but also the people with whom they came into contact - benefiting from Fozzie's calming energy. And now that he's paved the way, a myriad of other animals will be providing the same services around the nation.

I shot video of Chase accepting Fozzie's award. Here is that brief video too:

Following Chase's acceptance of Fozzie's award, honorary event chair Jackson Galaxy was invited to come onstage and answer questions the event attendees had written on their index cards. These were the index cards I had collected from the guests as they were finishing their dinners.

As a disciple of his teachings, I took video of the Q & A session, so I'm including that here as well..split up into several videos so none of them would be too long to manage. Jackson gives great advice -- what can I say? I apologize for any difficulty in hearing the questions and answers, but it should be clear enough if you turn up your speakers.

The first question involves how to convert a self-proclaimed "Dog Guy" into a "Cat Guy"...and the second is about promoting friendship between a cat and the new puppy in the home. Here are the questions and Jackson's answers to them:

In the second Q & A Session video Jackson answers the question: "How can I make my new cat comfortable in my home?" Here is Jackson's advice to this new pet parent:

The third and final Q & A video is my personal favorite. If you don't watch any of the other videos, this one is most deserving of a listen (in my humble opinion!). That is not because of the humor of the question and sincerity of the answer - although those elements are both there - but because at the end Jackson paints a really poignant picture of what life is like for shelter animals and helps listeners to really empathize with their plight - reminding us all why we're gathered together for the evening, raising funds and awareness for companion animals.

The question asked is: "My cat is perfect. Is that because of my great parenting?" As I collected the index card from the guy who wrote it, he was laughing and telling me to make sure Jackson read it. He was clearly having a good time with the assignment. Here is Jackson's sincere response to his tongue-in-cheek question...and his sharing of the sad reality of life for shelter animals:

Following Questions and Answers with Jackson Galaxy, it was time to transition into his introduction of the only feline Hero Award recipient: My boy Cuffie!

Cuffie earned the distinction of "Animal Hero" as an adopted cat who has repeatedly saved his boy Davis from diabetic emergencies. He was never trained to do it, but when Davis' blood sugar drops to treacherous levels Cuffie recognizes the danger and alerts Davis' parents - even waking them in the middle of the night with a paw to the eye!

Here is Jackson's introduction and Cuffie's Hero Video:

Perhaps even more astounding than Cuffie's ability and persistence in alerting his humans to his boy's plummeting blood sugar levels is the fact that he actually showed his skills right there at the Hero Awards - under loud and stressful conditions that would send most cats running for cover - and I was able to witness it firsthand as his mom was holding him!

I captured video of his mom speaking when his family helped him accept the award and in it she explained exactly what I mean. You've got to check this's amazing!

Cuffie is truly a remarkable cat...even under immense pressure!

So the meat and potatoes of the evening was over after the conclusion of the awards presentation ceremony. Guests filtered out of the banquet room and proceeded to pick up the items they won during the silent auction. Quite a few volunteers were engaged in the process of distributing the auction items.

Table full of Swag Bags Set Up at the Exit Area

I was otherwise occupied. No awards ceremony is complete without "Swag Bags" - Bags stuffed with special little gifts for attendees - appropriately animal-themed, of course! Items that were memorable for me included a copy of Stella the Pit Bull's coloring book (my favorite item!), dog and cat treats and food samples, and the enzymatic cleaner that Jackson Galaxy promotes and sells. I set myself up with armloads of these "Swag Bags" to hand to people as they were leaving, reminding them all to have a great evening, thanking them for coming, and sharing a final smile with them.

I got one final hug from Cuffie's people as they walked out into the night - even though my arms were loaded with bags. Just like that, the event was over.

My smile did not fade all the way home. I love the warm glow I feel after having participated in an event like this that brings good to so many of the voiceless. It's a beautiful feeling and I hope to have opportunities to participate every year going forward.

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