Birch Street resident Bernadette Vinci, the chief executive officer for the new non-profit Guardian HEALS, poses for a photo in Lyon Park with her dogs Flurry (right) and Delta on Dec. 14, after discussing how the organization financially assists pet owners.
Sarah Wolpoff|Westmore News
Birch Street resident Bernadette Vinci, the chief executive officer for the new non-profit Guardian HEALS, poses for a photo in Lyon Park with her dogs Flurry (right) and Delta on Dec. 14, after discussing how the organization financially assists pet owners. Sarah Wolpoff|Westmore News
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In Bernadette Vinci’s expansive professional experience as a veterinary hospital administrator, she’s found around 10% of pet owners get hit with a medical bill they can’t afford. Their financial strain often forces them into making the most gut-wrenching decision to put down their beloved animal companion, potentially prematurely.

Vinci’s new non-profit, however, aims to combat that reality—providing a safety net for all our furry loved ones, regardless of their owner’s financial circumstances.

“I’ve always loved dogs; I’ve always loved animals. My great-grandfather was a veterinarian in Italy, though back in those days, who knows what that would even mean,” laughed Vinci, a lifelong Port Chester resident. “But that meant my father and his nine brothers and sisters always had dogs. And to this day, all of the cousins are dog lovers. I think it was sort of just ingrained in us.”

Currently, she owns two dogs, 3-year-old mini–Australian Shepherds named Flurry and Delta—born during a snowstorm in North Carolina.

“I just think dogs are so important and we’re their voice,” she continued. “They can’t speak. They can be helpless, but they bring so much joy. They’re just so special.”

With a successful background in veterinary industry administration—currently serving on the executive team with Guardian Veterinary Specialists, a 24-hour pet hospital out of Brewster—Vinci helped launch Guardian HEALS (Humans Enriching Animals Lives) as the organization’s chief executive officer in July 2020. Still in its puppy stages, the non-profit’s primary premise is to help people fund their animal’s medical bills.

The program is only eligible to pet owners who actually need the money and can provide proof that they don’t have the ability to afford treatment. At this point especially, early in the organization’s life, Vinci said it’s critical that their limited resources are going to individuals and families who meet the criteria.

“It actually has to be someone who can’t afford the payment, but there’s different situations,” she said, describing how she personally reviews the applications on a case-by-case basis. “Someone could be low-income but has been a saver their whole life and has money in their accounts and can pay. And then there’s some people who make money but don’t have a dime left. Or maybe they were laid off because of COVID. Whatever’s happened, those are the people we’re trying to help; the ones who really don’t have the money.”

Since October, after the program had collected enough funds to really start servicing people, Guardian HEALS has already been able to help around a dozen families provide vital treatment for their pets, Vinci said. But they’re hoping as the organization continues to grow, their reach will expand.

By nature, Vinci is a nurturer.

Born and raised in the Village, the Birch Street resident embodies the “whole Port Chester experience”—graduating from Port Chester High School where she played in the marching band and on the softball team.

Life as a caregiver started when she moved home from college as a young woman, drawn to care for her mother after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Years later, after going back to school and moving on to work an 18-year career as a global account manager at AT&T, she did the same for her father when he developed Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“It was very rewarding; I would never change anything. But during that time period, I realized how much people need really good insurance,” she said. “You need disability and life insurance. So from there, I went and got my license to sell life insurance, health insurance.”

From there, Vinci said she not only embarked into a successful career in the veterinary industry, but she garnered a track record for building up organizations from scratch. Early on, she founded BRV and Associates, an insurance and financial services firm specializing in veterinary groups. But then, she shifted her career focus more directly.

She helped found the Animal Specialty Center in Yonkers, where she served as an administrator from 2005-2010, before becoming the director of operations at the Newtown Veterinary Specialists in Newtown, Conn.—a position she held from 2012-2016.

Over the course of her career, she crossed paths with Dr. Jason Berg and joined him in 2016 on his venture to create Guardian Veterinary Specialists. Vinci served as the vice president and chief operating officer, massively expanding the enterprise until early 2021.

Vinci and Berg had been conceptualizing an organization like Guardian HEALS for about 15 years. But in 2021, they decided it was time to just go for it. Due to her track record, Vinci was asked to contribute to her passion project by serving as Guardian HEALS’ chief executive officer, tasked with overseeing the organization. Berg, the other founder, sits as chairman of the board.

Along with financial assistance, the non-profit yearns to establish a pillar of education—teaching people about the commitments and implications of pet ownership.

“What we want to do is, obviously the goal is someday to let every pet have access to veterinary care because it’s a pet, it’s the family. They become so much a part of our family,” she said. “But then the second goal is to educate people. I don’t think people know what it costs to adopt a pet. There’s the annual checkups, but they don’t think about that accident that could happen. That puppy who jumps off a chair and his leg needs to be operated on. Or the cat that got into something and now has too many hair balls and needs some kind of surgery.”

“You’d be surprised how many people who are older and they don’t realize it costs $10,000 to have an MRI and brain surgery,” she added. “They just can’t believe it. But it is, because we use human equipment. It’s all very expensive.”

As is the case with many matters, Vinci said education is most effective when done early—she’d like to focus on teaching children with outreach programs through schools and youth groups. The lessons would cover both pet and financial responsibilities—she strongly encourages the idea of building savings accounts and purchasing pet insurance and advises people to stray away from spontaneous adoptions. Always think through the decision to own a pet and what it implies, she said.

Right now, the Guardian HEALS services are relatively limited, and it must stay that way until they acquire the funding to grow.

Vinci said at this point they’re not a sensible safety net for immediate emergency procedures because they don’t have the bandwidth for processing applications fast enough. And they’re additionally restricted in how many people they can help. Because the non-profit is just starting, she’s intentionally keeping the system small with desires to gradually grow. She doesn’t want to jump the gun on expansion, in fear that they’ll bite off more than they can chew.

“We’ve helped around 12 people, which is really exciting, but I haven’t even put the application on the website yet,” she said. “I’m concerned that once we do, we’ll get 100 applications a day and then we won’t have the money to help everyone.

“I don’t want to give people that false hope,” she continued. “So, we’re trying to build ourselves up very slowly and see who we can help. Applicants are mostly coming from word of mouth from veterinarians right now, if there are people that they think would qualify and we can help.”

That means, Vinci is laser-focused on fundraising. Largely, donations have been collected thus far through social media campaigns, newsletters and word of mouth contributions. The organization is also planning to host a gala in the spring, which she hopes will boost the momentum in a sustainable, game changing way.

“We have the premise down. Now it’s about getting the word out there and finding donors and start doing fundraisers,” she said. “Things like that, that’s the biggest hurdle, getting the word out there.”

To donate to the cause or to learn more about Guardian HEALS, check out their website at healspets.org.