Not too long ago, Weng Horak spent her days traveling the world and devising financial strategies as part of her role as a corporate executive.
These days her work involves less travel, but still includes analyzing the financial strengths a company –– when she's not figuring out the best way for her and her team to find forever homes for rescue animals.
"I'm a group CFO (chief financial officer), so I used to do financial modeling," she tells PEOPLE with laughter in her voice. "Now I'm cleaning (animals' cages). When a TV news segment featured us, they showed me doing that. I said to my friends, 'Look. You've been wondering what I do. There I am.' "
Korak's professional life now centers on the no-kill shelter she founded in 2018, the Center for Animal Rescue & Enrichment of St. Louis (CARE STL). The animal-loving Horak, whose family currently has six dogs and two cats, founded the shelter after she read that the city of St. Louis was looking for a partner to operate their animal shelter. Having worked part-time in a financial role for animal-centric organizations, she sent a proposal that was accepted.
Horak, a native of the Philippines, moved to St. Louis, her husband's hometown, in 2008 as part of their plan to create a more stable home life for their four daughters. Shortly after the move, Korak left the corporate executive track and began to work with animal-centric organizations.
"When the city of St. Louis announced that they were looking for a partner to take care of the animal control shelter, I knew I wanted to be completely involved in the life of these animals and really guide them from the time they come in until I find them home," she said. "And I got it. And guess what? We rescued 4,129 animals. And out of that number, we found 3,289 animals' homes. We found them forever homes."
There's plenty more work to be done. Along with abused, abandoned, and lost pets, the shelter also houses dogs rescued from puppy mills and animals surrendered by their owners. Since the ongoing coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, the numbers of surrenders have soared. In 2019, CARE STL housed 252 surrenders. In 2020, the number rose to 328. One reason for the high number is that CARE welcomes every animal that comes to their door, even when other shelters and rescues put up virtual "No Vacancy" signs during the pandemic.
"Other shelters choose which animals they take," said Cate Redfern, who does development and public relations for the shelter. "CARE doesn't do that. When an animal arrives at the door, they take them and work to provide the best possible outcomes. That's different than [policies at] other shelters."
Thanks to CARE STL's open-door policy — and their medical facilities, training centers, and various corporate sponsors and donors, including Purina — the shelter can care for pets surrendered by their owners due to financial hardships until the pet parents are in place to care for them again.
CARE STL's 18 employees and many volunteers lovingly look after these surrendered pets until their original owners can reclaim them, offering food and other resources to the owners to help this reunion happen faster. This dedication has been priceless during the pandemic, a time when many animal lovers have struggled financially and have looked to their pets for emotional support. CARE is keeping these families together.
"With people losing their jobs, losing their homes … many can't keep their animals. They are so scared the pet will be euthanized. We're changing the mindset," said Horak. "I tell them you are safe. Your animal is safe. I will take care of your pet."
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