A Community Comes Together in the Face of Great Tragedy

Sunday, November 22nd, 2016:

Marianne Belanger was woken up at 11:45pm by a call from one of her friends, and fellow volunteer at the Sweetpea Animal Shelter, informing her that the shelter was on fire. Suddenly filled with fear, she jumped in her car and raced to the shelter as fast as she could.
“Upon arrival,” Belanger said, “I was overwhelmed by the sadness from the other volunteers – at that point five dogs and one cat had been rescued – and so we sat in the boarding kennels, cried and held the survivors in blankets and tried to warm them and sooth them.”


Photo by Amanda Keohane

Belanger had been volunteering for the shelter several times a week since last summer (2015), when she was recruited to help plan the annual “Spooktacular” event. She has been passionate about the non-profit ever since.

What happened that night at the Sweetpea F.O.R. Animals Shelter in Paxton, MA proved to be one of the most tragic events in the Wachusett community’s recent history. Over 50 animals were killed by the fire while only five were saved.

Many people in the community feel the loss and sadness of the event deeply. But, it became clear upon meeting with Melanie Kenadek, the shelter manager at Sweetpea, that most people were not aware of the details behind the aftermath of this devastation. So, to understand just what the damage is from the fire, how they plan to recover, and how the community can help, let’s start by breaking this down a bit.

What is Sweetpea F.O.R. Animals?

Sweetpea was founded by Dick Clark, a now retired Animal Control Officer, in the year 2000 after he rescued a dog from a breeding factory; her name was Sweetpea. They began renting at the current location in Paxton and have now taken out a mortgage on the property.

Sweetpea takes pride in the fact that they are a no-kill shelter. This means that, no matter what the animal’s medical state or how long they have been with the shelter, they will not be euthanized as in other shelters, due to needs for space and the, at times, overwhelming medical costs. Sweetpea is dedicated to helping animals at all costs necessary. Naturally, this makes for an increase in cost and need for space.

So, how are they supported?

Most of the money Sweetpea takes in comes from donations via their PayPal and GoFundMe pages, but they also earn money by housing dogs short-term in their boarding kennels, which are attached to the main office building.
They also rely heavily on donations that come in from their partnerships with other companies such as Kuranda Dog and Cat beds,  Amazon Smile, iGive, BISSELL, and WoofTrax. So far their GoFundMe campaign has raised over $138,000. It was originally created 13 months ago as another means of fundraising, but the shelter saw a huge rise in donations after the fire.

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What was the damage of the fire?

The fire was successful in completely destroying the secondary building on the Sweetpea property, where all the shelter animals were being held. The fire was thought to have started in the ceiling due to a spark from the electric wiring. Because it was above the sprinkler system, it wasn’t able to put out the flames before it grew out of control.


Photo by Amanda Keohane

Before long, the fire was strong enough to cause the ceiling to collapse and, due to the gust of air created by the fall, it erupted into a raging inferno in mere seconds. By the time the fire department arrived, it was clear that it was too late. At that point, it was just a matter of getting out what animals they could. Which was less than 10% in the end.

The aftermath of the fire:


Photo by Amanda Keohane

Belanger spoke of the outreach Sweetpea saw after the fire saying, “I am amazed at the outpouring of support from all over the US & other countries! The generosity of total strangers has humbled me and made me realize how wonderful people can be!”
After the fire the surrounding community came to the rescue, donating blankets, food, bedding and more. Each day brought new faces, new words of encouragement and new donations. It has gotten to the point that a storage unit has been purchased and placed behind the office building so that they could store all these donations, to be used once the shelter re-opens.


Photo by Amanda Keohane

Along with donations and support from community locals, Sweetpea has seen the support from companies such as Arcadia Antlers, Stop & Shop, Home Depot, Big Y, Price Chopper and more. It has been a group effort and a coming together of people and volunteers. “Many people had never heard of Sweetpea and so if anything, we have gained awareness about our shelter and the plight of shelter animals,” said Belanger.

Though the shelter is unable to take in any animals due to a lack of boarding space, the kennels are close to being finished revamping. With the help of local volunteers and donors, they hope to open for boarding in sometime between April and May. The reinstatement of these kennels would be beneficial to help bringing in more revenue for the shelter.

The Survivors:

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The above images were taken just days before the fire and provided by Marianne Belanger

While Sweetpea is still mourning the loss of around 50 of their sheltered animals, there is much to rejoice in. Four dogs (Davinci, Stella, Brooklyn Skye and Jade) and one cat (Bruin) made it through the night of the fire. All the surviving animals have found homes, except for Stella and DaVinci, whom are going to take a little more time to find just the right home.

Of all the survivors, Stella had to go through one of the toughest recovery periods – and is just now starting to get back into a normal doggy life.
On admit, Stella was intubated and started on mechanical ventilation,” said Mary Kenadek, an ICU Technician who was working at the Tufts medical center when Stella was first admitted. “Her chest x-rays showed severe infiltration of the lungs, especially on the left side which was suspected to be aspiration pneumonia after regurgitation on first day of admission and injury on the right side.”


Photo: Facebook

“On day 7 she had a temporary tracheostomy done in order to bypass the burns within her trachea and allow her more time to heal. We were also able to remove her from the ventilator with this tube in place. Oxygen was supplemented through this tube.”(Mary Kenadek)


Photo: Facebook

“On December 4th, we removed her tracheostomy tube and put her in an oxygen cage for two days. She would have many coughing and retching fits especially when stimulated. We slowly began to re-introduce food. She became stronger each day and showed improvement with medical management of her pneumonia as well as the acute lung injury due to the smoke inhalation.”(Mary Kenadek)

At this point, Stella was sent to finish her recovering and physical therapy at the Westside Animal Hospital, where she is currently staying and recovering slowly but surely.

Stella is lucky to have such an amazing support system behind her. She receives visits from Sweetpea volunteers and Melanie Kenadek frequently. One of her favorite people to receive visits from is Tom Savage, the firefighter that pulled her from the building on the tragic night.

While Stella and Savage have an unshakable bond, he is unable to adopt her due to him already having several dogs and Stella being unable to mix well with other dogs. In order to commemorate his bond with Stella, Savage had her face tattooed across his entire forearm.


Photo: Facebook

Stella have proven to be a true fighter through it all and will continue to be the face of bravery and inspiration for she surely is “Sweetpea Strong.”

What will it take to rebuild?

Melanie Kenadek, the shelter manager and daughter of Clark (the founder of Sweetpea), was happy to say that Sweetpea has also seen generosity from the construction companies when planning the rebuild. “We are so lucky to have these companies on board designing. The donation amounts here are incredible!”(Kenadek)

During the rebuild, Sweetpea will be relying on the help of Cutler Associates for Architecture and structural designing, Nitsch Engineering for the civil engineering, and RDK Engineers for the mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection planning. RDK, along with Rob Johnson Structural Engineers are volunteering their efforts pro bono while Nitsch Engineering and Cutler Associates are offering an extremely reduced rate.

“The building footprint is approximately 4700 square feet and consists of separate areas for dogs and cats with indoor/outdoor kennels for all dogs and free roam cat rooms,” says Belanger. “The new building will utilize energy efficient mechanical and electrical systems along with sustainable building materials. We are considering pursuing LEED certification if the budget allows.”


Blueprint of shelter rebuild, provided by Marianne Belanger

The rebuild will no doubt still be extremely expensive, even with all the help that Sweetpea is seeing. “In addition to monetary donations, we are also seeking donations of construction materials and labor.”(Belanger). Though, exactly how much labor and material help they need will be posted soon on the Sweetpea website once the designing process has progressed further. There will be plenty of chances for the community to come together and make this dream a reality!

How can the community get involved?

The shelter is always looking for new volunteers and animal lovers to join the Sweetpea family. “Anyone interested can attend our volunteer open house in May to become an active member of our team,” says Belanger. “The Animal Relations/Volunteer committee will be hosting this event and will provide information on volunteer opportunities for all aspects of our organization.”

There are many different roles that the volunteers play as a part of the Sweetpea team. “We have a few girls who all they do is write thank you cards to all our donors,” says Kenadek. “These days we have a list of thousands of donors, and we will write a personal thanks you to them all.”

Other volunteers would come to walk and play with the animals several times a week, plan events, or take animals on outings to have a change of surrounding. Sweetpea also has foster families who take care of some animals that can’t be held at the shelter while they are looking for a forever home.

No matter who you are, you can help play a role in the Sweetpea team as long as you have the passion and want to help make a difference. No amount of help it too small! The tragedy of the Sweetpea fire may have brought about time of deep sadness in the Wachusett community, but it has also shown just how much good we can do, if we just join together.


Photo by Amanda Keohane

For more information about the Sweetpea Cause, check out these links:






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