Kristina Millman-Rinaldi had a rough childhood that included episodes of abuse and being shuttled from house to house.
“I bounced around in my childhood, but wherever I was there was a dog,” she said. “Now, when I rescue one, I see a piece of myself in them.”
As executive director of Detroit Dog Rescue (DDR), Millman-Rinaldi, 34, does a lot of rescuing. Last year, the nonprofit rehomed 396 dogs and helped another 1,500 with free vaccinations, food for needy owners and spaying/neutering to stem the proliferation of stray dogs roaming the city.
Detroit Dog Rescue is the city’s first and only no-kill shelter. That’s no small feat when you consider Detroit is estimated to have more than 50,000 stray dogs, some of which have been cruelly abused, neglected and/or used in fighting. The city’s 23 animal control officers can’t begin to keep up with the problem; nearly 90 percent of the dogs they pick up are euthanized.
Millman-Rinaldi, who lives in West Bloomfield, is one of several Jews involved with the organization, which, she said, fits squarely with traditional Jewish values of giving back.
“I had an amazing Jewish grandma who instilled my faith and taught me that being Jewish means that giving back is always a priority. That’s what led me to animals and helping others,” she said. “At Detroit Dog Rescue, we see so many people from the Jewish community becoming interested and involved with the dogs of Detroit. It is a great feeling to have the community I come from support the organization I belong to.”
One of those supporters is Samuel Finn, 20, who is currently doing a four-month internship with DDR. The student of public policy at the University of Michigan and a former president of Michigan Region BBYO calls the internship “the most fun I have ever had working.”
Finn does everything from grant research to donor outreach to helping plan fundraisers. He’s particularly excited about his latest project, devising a mitzvah project for youth.
“We can’t have kids handling the dogs because of liability, but there are still ways they can be impassioned to work with us,” he said. “We want to empower 12- and 13-year-olds to run their own campaigns, like maybe turning the family’s Labor Day kickball game into a fundraiser that includes the neighborhood,” said Finn of Farmington Hills.
“When I did my mitzvah project at 13, I did it because I had to, but I was not excited about it. We want to make it so your family and friends look up at you on the bimah and can tell you genuinely enjoyed it, rather than just showed up, signed in and did the hours.”
Detroit Dog Rescue is a natural fit, Finn said. “For the Jewish community, we should be one of the first nonprofits people think of to volunteer and raise awareness of the issues. The stray animal issue is a high public safety concern for both cities and animals. The Jewish community in Metro Detroit can and should get behind this because it impacts all of us.”
Lending A Hand
A few years ago, Mark Breimeister of Waterford was seeking to volunteer with a dog charity. A friend recommended DDR and he was quickly sold on the group. Today, he serves on the board of directors as secretary.
“I tend to like dogs; I find them much more trustworthy than humans,” said the 52-year-old owner of a produce company. “And I wanted to be part of the renaissance of Detroit, to help the community as it is changing.”
Breimeister said he’s always impressed with the rescues.
“It’s so amazing if you look at the track records of what these dogs have been through. Now they are sitting at an adoption event with little kids pulling on their ears and climbing on their backs; it is an amazing transformation,” he said. “Dogs are honest and pure, and just because humans have done something bad to them, that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.”
Millman-Rinaldi agreed that the animals, rehabbed with the help of K9 Turbo Training’s positive reinforcement techniques, never fail to impress her.
“These are some of the most resilient dogs; they have been through so much in their little lives,” she said. “We rehab them and they turn into loving dogs. To have an actual dog from Detroit that was never loved — they appreciate it so much more than any other dog.”
DDR takes on helpless dogs that other groups would deem as hopeless, Finn said. “We have had so many cases where any other rescue organization would look at these dogs and say, ‘There is nothing we can do; they are too injured, sick or unsocialized. Either put them down or let nature run its course.’ The DDR staff sees that this is an animal that needs and deserves help. They might cost more to rehab, retrain and rehome, but it’s worth it. These dogs not only survive, but thrive.”
Millman-Rinaldi, who has been involved with DDR since its inception in 2011, said she has found her life’s calling.
“I know I was put here to do this. The way I grew up, horrific as it was sometimes, I have a connection with these cruelty cases, but I can take away something positive. It’s a special feeling. Not everyone can do it, but I am thankful I can.”
Joyce Wiswell Contributing Writer
Jerry Zolynsky Photographer
Learn more, including upcoming fundraisers, ways to help and how to adopt a dog, at detroitdogrescue.com.