Animal League starts construction on Wellness Center

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Don and Karen LaRocca of Garden City were known for their love of animals and volunteering for more than 17 years at the North Shore Animal League America in Port Washington. 

In honor of their memory, the organization held a ground-breaking ceremony on Monday to begin construction on the Don and Karen LaRocca Pet Wellness Center, which will be located at 63 Bayles Ave. in Port Washington. 

Officials said the  project, financed in part by the LaRoccas, will cost $1.2 million and the building will be completed in the spring of 2017.

“Philanthropists, compassion, community, service, spirit of volunteerism, legacy, family values: these words really exemplify Don and Karen LaRocca,” said Diana Zaferiou, vice president of event promotion and corporate and foundation giving at the league. 

“Don, he was just wonderful. I had invited him to be on our board about a week or two before he died and it was going to be a great moment because he would’ve added so much to what we do,” said John Stevenson, president of North Shore Animal League America. “Karen, she was wonderful around the league. I mean she walked animals, she took care of animals, she expressed her love for what we do and for the animals in so many ways.” 

Don and Karen LaRocca’s son Scott LaRocca said at the event that his parents found their love for animals after getting their first and only dog named Rags. 

“He was all ears and had great big giant paws and he had fur shooting in all directions,” LaRocca said. 

He said both he and his brother, Don Jr., were shocked that their parents came home with a puppy. 

“We asked him over the years, relentlessly, ‘Dad, what about a dog?’” LaRocca said. “He would pat us on the shoulder and say, ‘Fellas I know. But you don’t understand. You love them and you love them, but then one day you have to kiss them goodbye… So lets go get some fish.’”

He said his father changed his mind after his mother brought the puppy home.

“He melted,” LaRocca said. 

“Soon Rags, short for ragamuffin I suppose, was part of the family,” he added. 

LaRocca said he hopes that when the building nears completion, people will look at his parents’ names on the wall and think of two words — perspective and joy. 

“You think of perspective and joy and the deep strong love that they shared not only for each other, but for the animals here, the volunteers, everybody that commits to this greater cause,” he said. 

Stevenson said to LaRocca, “Your mom and dad shared a deep connection to the well-being of companion animals and expressed that commitment in personal and meaningful ways. In fact they were two of the most compassionate and passionate people I have ever known and I’m saying that from the heart.”

“We miss Don and Karen very much,” he added. “Their generosity is central to what we do. Invest in the health and well-being of many dogs, cats, puppies and kittens. Despite their modesty I think they would be proud today of what the Don and Karen LaRocca Pet Wellness Center represents — a great step forward in our ability to provide affordable, and that’s the key word, affordable, high-quality wellness care with the pets in our community and beyond. We’re humbled and honored to name this life-saving new facility in their honor and to link their names to the ideals, compassion and empathy for decades to come.”

The new facility will be separate from the existing medical center and will proactively manage the health of animals. 

Officials said the wellness center will serve the growing need in the community for high-quality, affordable veterinary care.  

“This is going to be a wonderful building, the activities in there are going to save lives, going to prevent illnesses before they even happen, and it’s going to make the life of the animals so much better, so much more humane,” Stevenson said.

Dr. Mark Verdino, vice president of medical services and chief of staff, said the animal shelter has seen an increase in demand for animal care, and the center will  double  capacity.

“With emphasis on preventive medicine, it will also help us create a healthier population of pets and better educated community of pet owners, which in turn will advance our no kill mission and support our commitment to various veterinary public health issues in our community,”  Verdino said.

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