April 24, 2018
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Turning grief into an act of compassion for pets

  • Debbie Lucchesi is seen outside the storage unit with a rack holding some of the pet blankets she makes. Robert Grant

By: Stephanie Derammelaere
April 13, 2018

In 2011 Debbie Lucchesi of Rohnert Park lost her beloved 15-year-old dog Josie to cancer and was struck with grief and loss. Wanting to honor Josie’s memory and needing an outlet to cope with the loss, she decided to start the Josie Memorial Pet Project, making bedding and pet toys for animal shelters and rescue groups.

“Because she [Josie] was such a huge part of my life and my oldest child, she wasn’t a pet, she was a member of my family,” says Lucchesi. “Losing her was really a devastating loss for me and I needed a way to fill that hole that was left in my heart and life. I needed a way to channel that into some way to honor her memory.”

At the time Lucchesi was working for a bedding manufacturer and for years had wanted someone to take the scrap materials to make bedding for shelter animals. She never found anyone else to do it so in 2011 she decided to do it herself.  She purchased a sewing machine and went to work creating blankets, toys and bedding for pets. The next week she visited several local shelters to distribute her gifts.  

“When I saw the response and saw that there was such a need as I started reaching out to rescue groups and shelters, that’s when I knew this wasn’t going to be a one weekend or short term thing,” says Lucchesi. “This was something that was going to be an ongoing thing. I was working full time at the time and had a family but all my spare time I was channeling into this and finding where the need was and making different things.”

After about a year she created a website and Facebook page and decided to incorporate. By 2014 she was officially a non-profit with non-profit tax exempt status and a board of directors. While she occasionally gets some volunteers to help make products and/or deliver them, most of the work is still done by Lucchesi. Today she has made products for shelters and rescue groups in 43 states as far away as New Hampshire. 

In the beginning, the Josie Memorial Pet Project solely produced bedding and toys for animal shelters and rescue groups. However, as Lucchesi learned more about the needs of some of these rescue groups, she worked to fill other pet-related product requests and now often makes custom-produced items such as custom trap covers for feral cat TNR (trap, neuter, return) groups, cat cage shelf covers, custom adoption cage covers, or specially-sized cat hammocks. The project’s goal is to meet the needs of these organizations without tapping their already limited budgets.

The Josie Memorial Pet Project’s Facebook page, currently having 1,235 likes, helps gain visibility and support of the work and helps cover the costs of some of the projects. 

“Just recently I sent a donation package to an animal shelter in Alabama,” says Lucchesi. “I’ll write a post saying ‘I’m sending this package to this organization, who would like to sponsor this with a donation towards shipping?’ Then someone can donate the cost of the shipping, which makes it possible for me to send packages to other organizations. That way I don’t have to be confined to just local organizations or ones to which people can deliver products.” 

Over the years the Josie Memorial Pet Project has grown into a mission to also support animal rescue. The organization is involved in trap-neuter-return and animal rescue efforts in the local community and Lucchesi is a volunteer at Forgotten Felines. She herself has a full house of adopted and rescued animals – particularly after the recent fires. Currently her household includes one dog, four cats, three cockatiels, a parrot and two parakeets. 

“I’ve loved animals and have rescued animals all my life,” says Lucchesi. “I have a particular soft spot for the challenging ones. All of my animals, my “kids”, with the exception of the parrot [which was rescued from the fires], all have their own issues and challenges that make them not prime adoptable candidates. Some have emotional scars and some have physical needs. I have one with a heart condition, one has a severe flea allergy and another one had to have a full mouth extraction and is terrified of people. They all have different challenges.” 

Recently the bedding manufacturer that provided the great majority of the materials stopped donating their scraps, so Lucchesi is in great need of either fabric (especially fleece) donations, or monetary support to purchase supplies. Interested individuals can also check out her Facebook page for current needs or sponsorship opportunities. 

“If you can’t adopt, foster,” says Lucchesi. “If you can’t foster, sponsor or donate. I’m a firm believer in everybody can do something. It’s important not to get hung up on the fact that you can’t do everything. Everybody can do something or help somewhere or another. There are a lot of ways you can make a difference.”