From finance exec to service for animals

Volunteer Lisa Zarek holding a black and white puppy
Lisa Zarek supports new volunteers, coaches foster caregivers, and connects with shelters, all without leaving home.
By Nicole Hamilton

One day nearly two decades ago, Lisa Zarek was cruising at 30,000 feet when she opened an in-flight magazine and saw an ad for Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. So impressed with what she learned about Best Friends once she was back home, she became a supporter. She couldn’t have known at the time, but that one ad sparked the beginning of her long journey volunteering to help animals in her own community and beyond.

Since then, Lisa has volunteered countless hours at animal shelters near her home, first in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and now in Florida and upstate New York — the two places she currently calls home. She’s taken classes on animal welfare, and she’s made many visits to the Sanctuary, a place she calls “transformational.” There, amid the red rocks and quiet canyons, she recharges and returns home ready to take on new roles to help animals.

[An enormous thank-you to Best Friends volunteers]

She’s also been the calm, supportive voice on hundreds of phone calls with foster caregivers. She was one of the first volunteers with the Best Friends foster mentor program (which she would eventually help lead) as part of the National Operations Volunteers and Ambassadors (NOVA) team. They are a group of remote volunteers from across the nation who directly support the work of Best Friends, including at the Sanctuary.

In her role within the foster mentor program, Lisa coaches foster volunteers on how to feed newborn kittens. As a behavior support volunteer, she talks to adopters whose dogs need a little extra behavior help in their first few months at home. And she offers guidance to staff as they continue to streamline the foster mentor program as needs change. “Her kindness has helped many foster caregivers who have benefitted from her helping hand,” says Christine Colvin, Best Friends national community engagement coordinator.

[9 stories about volunteers who are making a difference for pets]

Lisa was also the first volunteer the Best Friends embed team reached out to for help gathering important data for the spay/neuter clinic at the Polk County Animal Shelter, which is near her home outside of Tampa. And recently, the former finance executive went through extensive training and is currently working to collect important data from Louisiana shelters that are on Best Friends’ "missing data" shelter list as part of Best Friends’ strategic shelter engagement program.

In this role, Lisa reaches out to shelters, encourages them to join the Best Friends Network Partner program, and asks them to share their data. This data is critical, as it helps determine how close the country is to reaching no-kill by 2025.

“Lisa’s kindness, empathy, and communication skills are so valuable,” says Kim Beck, Best Friends senior national volunteer specialist. “She's been able to build relationships with staff members at these shelters and talk to them about the importance of sharing their intake and outcome data with us.”

Learn more about Lisa and what inspires her to volunteer in the interview below.

What do you love most about being a volunteer?

I love helping people understand how they can enrich the lives of animals in their care. I have been working with shelters in Florida and Louisiana that really needed help to save more animals in those communities. Best Friends has done that, and I am pleased to have played a small role in their success by processing adoptions or helping input medical records and other information.

My husband and I also signed up to be a part of the Best Friends national transport team, and it makes me feel great to know that I am helping to save the lives of those animals. I continue to mentor foster care providers around the country, and that has also led to working with people who are considering returning their pets. Best Friends again is being so creative by not only providing support to people who foster pets but also support for adopters to help those animals remain in their homes.

What would you tell others who are thinking of volunteering?

Best Friends really epitomizes the word “kind.” There is no other animal welfare organization that I have volunteered for where many of the original founders are still so actively involved and where staff and other volunteers are so kind to each other. Best Friends wants to collaborate with everyone to try to stop the killing of animals in this country. I also feel like I am given many different opportunities to help. I can choose what to do from a variety of tasks, and most importantly, I can work when it is most convenient for me. Even if you can volunteer an hour or two a week, it really makes a difference. I usually tell people to visit the Sanctuary if they can. It feels like a very spiritual place and will have a lasting impact on you.

Since becoming a volunteer, what have you learned? Do you see things differently now? And if so, how?

Wow, that is a great question. I learn something new every day for sure — about people and about animals. I think I do see things differently, too, because I have learned more about what is going on in this country in terms of animal welfare. Best Friends was started by a group of friends who just wanted to save animals, and one of the things that they had to do was ask for help. That meant that they were told “no” — a lot. And Best Friends still continues to ask communities to help, and they still get told “no” — a lot. But it does not discourage Best Friends from asking for everyone to help to try to save more animals.

I volunteer in so many different roles at Best Friends because someone asked me to help. I think there are a lot of opportunities for people to help animals in their local communities and at the national level. There are just too many animals still being killed in this country simply because there is no place for them.

It breaks my heart, and I feel really motivated to do what I can to help. Best Friends has done a great job of organizing its volunteers at the national level through the NOVA group, but there are also other volunteer groups focused on various projects to try to save more animals. For instance, right now I am also active in a shelter engagement project to see if we can get more shelters to sign up as network partners.

In terms of your volunteer work for Best Friends, what are you most proud of? Why?

That is a tough one. I really enjoy my work as a foster mentor. I feel I have made a difference in the lives of many foster care providers. I have introduced positive reinforcement training methods to everyone I speak with. For instance, I always recommend that people use food to train their pets each time they feed them.

The pets my husband and I foster rarely eat from a bowl. They earn their food by learning simple behaviors, such as a “sit.” I also do a lot of handling exercises with them just using their food. Who doesn’t have five minutes to train their dog or cat at mealtimes? I love to educate people in general about animal care and enrichment.

Tell us about your favorite volunteer moment.

There are so many! We fostered a very fearful dog for 13 weeks. She was completely shut down, but at the end of her stay with us I took her to our local TV station who did an “adopt this pet” segment on her, and she was adopted into a great family. I feel proud that she became a different dog in my care, and I will never forget her.

Tell us something we don’t know about yourself.

My husband and I love country music and attend concerts when we can. We are blessed to be survivors of the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, after we spent several days volunteering with Best Friends. Something like that really puts everything in perspective.

Do you have pets? Tell us about them!

Tobey, my beloved dog, passed away in early 2020; he was 16 ½, and I miss him every day. We have not been ready to adopt another because we foster so many puppies and kittens, but we have recently started to look.

What does volunteering mean to you? Why do you do it?

I view volunteering as my second career. I love working with animals, but in my volunteer work, I am really helping people to help animals.

Help at-risk animals from home

Join the national operations support team and volunteer to lend a virtual hand to help animals find homes from the comfort of your own home.

Sign up today

Read more

Unique volunteer roles at Florida animal shelter

Labor of love: serving pets and people

4 volunteers helping animals in unique ways