Stephanie Willis was the child who would cry for hours if her parents accidentally drove through a pothole of bathing butterflies, the girl whose heart ached for stepped-on anthills and jarred fireflies, the nature lover who would rather play in her yard with the neighborhood dogs than go to Showbiz Pizza. Growing up in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, Stephanie was surrounded by wildlife, plenty of time for creativity, and dogs for days.
In her early twenties, Stephanie met her first child, Chihuahua, Presley, just before moving to Nashville, Tennessee. Stephanie had landed a great opportunity in the country music industry and after a few short years of development, her lifetime dream of making music professionally was finally coming true. In an ironic twist of fate, she realized that she needed something more.
To the shock of her friends, family and fans, Stephanie walked away from her full-time music career and went back to school to finish her Public Relations degree. It was her first ethics class that made her aware of puppy mills. With unfamiliar time on her hands and a strong need to make a difference, she began volunteering for various animal shelters, walking dogs and assisting their creative departments. After hearing about Agape Animal Rescue, Stephanie reached out and hasn’t looked back.
Stephanie began making adoption and promotional videos for Agape that proved to be very successful. With an infectious energy and an unlimited supply of ideas, she quickly became an important contributor to Agape’s creative team.
Recently appointed Agape’s first Director of Public Relations, Willis notes “Being a part of Agape Animal Rescue is as natural as breathing to me.”
Stephanie is a Belmont University student and co-owner of production company, Willisoundz, with her husband, award-winning studio guitarist, John Willis. Stephanie and John have three Chihuahuas, Presley, Rock and Jazz. "Though my dogs are spoiled beyond belief, they do more for me than I could ever do for them. Agape makes this kind of love possible for dogs and humans all across Middle Tennessee," says Willis.
Until the age of 11, Mike Panesi was an only child. With both parents working and living out in the country, that meant a lot of time alone. The good news was that Mike was never truly alone – he had the companionship of his big St. Bernard, Fido, and the many stray dogs that happened to wander to the house in search of a meal. Summers were spent running in the fields and exploring the forest with Fido and friends, or going to the river for a swim. The occasional winter freeze found Mike and Fido trying their hand at ice "skating" on a pond. Wherever Mike went, Fido was sure to follow, and vice versa.
Many years (and dogs) later, Mike has an amazing friend in St. Patrick, a rescue dog he found at a 2007 adoption day in Kansas City. With wife Sarah, cats Isis and Sphinx, and Patrick rounding out the family, the Panesi household is quite animal-friendly. Mike has always had a soft spot for dogs, and has always been quick to get involved if he ever sees an animal being treated unfairly. Mike has also volunteered with agencies in Kansas and Missouri, and has participated in different fundraisers to raise money for dog-parks and, as an avid motorcyclist, has ridden in rides to raise money to fight animal cruelty.
In 2010, Mike met with Agape Director Tanya Willis to discuss opportunities for volunteering with Agape, and got hooked! He wanted to be able to help at every volunteer event, but a hectic work schedule made that difficult. Then an opportunity became available to work as the organization’s Volunteer Coordinator, helping staff events with passionate volunteers who had the same interest in helping dogs. Mike’s great people skills have proven invaluable in his role as Volunteer Coordinator, and if not personally at an event, Mike can be found in the background organizing volunteers to make Agape events run smoothly.
"I absolutely love being a part of this great organization, knowing that what I do plays a part in helping the dogs find their forever homes. I truly enjoy working with my 2- and 4- legged friends!" says Mike. "I consider working with Agape to be one of the best experiences that I have had, and am privileged to work with such great, kind and passionate people."
During the day, Mike is a Consumer Market Manager for Bank of America, where he oversees the daily operations of 14 Nashville area banking centers. In his spare time, Mike enjoys taking his Harley on long trips, landscape photography, walking/ running trails with Patrick, kayaking and playing an assortment of stringed instruments.
As a child April Hollingsworth would ride her bike, basket filled with “medical supplies,” around her small town looking for animals needing help. She would return home with lost dogs and injured birds constantly! It was no surprise that as soon as soon as she was old enough, she got a job at a vet clinic where her love and appreciation for animals – and the people who helped them – grew into a passion. While working at the vet during her freshmen year of college, a small stray dog that had been hit by a car was brought in with a broken leg. When the vet offered to fix the leg and find the stray dog a home, April became the dog’s caretaker and after only a few weeks of care and work, April helped the shy little terrier become a playful, cuddly and trusting dog. She named the dog Annie, and adopted her. April knew from that point on that she would always choose to adopt her dogs.
Upon moving to Nashville after college and starting Harmony Designs Photography, April’s favorite subjects to photograph ended up being the dogs! She even used her own dog, Emma (also a rescue that she found by her college apartment), as a model and spokesdog for the business. While working with Agape Director Tanya Willis to photograph both her personal dogs and her wedding, April learned more about the work Tanya was doing with Agape and wanted to help. She began photographing Agape events and then offered to photograph the dogs that were up for adoption to help them find homes faster. This has grown into a collaboration of two yearly fundraisers for Agape – Luv My Dog Day and Country Chic Canines – photographing the annual Glitter & Glam fundraiser, and a monthly photo shot of the adoptable dogs in the Agape program.
April’s newest family additions have come from Agape. Indigo “Indy” (boxer/mountain dog mix) was April’s first foster dog, and Indy was ultimately adopted as a permanent member of the family. Pixel, her dachshund, has become April’s little “studio assistant” and melted April’s heart during an Agape puppy photo shoot. During the puppies’ photo shoot at April’s studio, Pixel was either posing like a professional model or falling asleep on April’s back as she lay on the floor to take the pictures. It was love at first sight, and after April dreamed the name “Pixel” for the puppy, she knew she had to adopt her!
April loves sharing her home with her rescue dogs Emma, Indy, and Pixel and her two rescue cats Oreo and Socks. April is passionate about being able to help homeless dogs find forever families to love and cherish them since each dog is truly a blessing.
Lucie Rice is an award winning illustrator and designer who has been doing graphic design work for Agape since meeting the rescue's Tanya Willis and Gayle Kerr in 2009. A lifelong animal lover, Lucie began her artistic endeavors drawing endless pictures and paintings of the beloved family dog. Now, many moons later, she is still incorporating animals into her commercial artwork whenever she can. Clients include Purina, the Grand Ole Opry, Penguin Books, Simon and Schuster and the New York Times. She is a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design. You can see more of her work by visiting her portfolio site, lucierice.com. She also operates a side business called "Muttshots" where she creates modern and playful pet portraits: muttshotsart.com.
Lucie lives with her husband and two dogs in Nashville. Lola, her "little brown dog" was adopted through an animal rescue in 2005, and found her forever home after two other families had given her up. Although she was left with some fear of abandonment issues, she remains one of the happiest, sweetest dogs on the planet. Hank is a recent addition to the family. In February of 2012, Agape brought a boxer puppy (formerly known as Crimson) into the program. As soon as Lucie saw that face on the website, she could not resist. "Handsome" Hank is a very loving and funny pup, and has added a tremendous amount of love and laughs to the household.
Lucie Rice Illustration and Design
Raye Dene Berry first recognized her gift of connection to animals as a child growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas. Raye Dene proved to be an authentic Texas cowgirl at the tender age of 10 as she rode bareback on her horse, Diablo. The name, Diablo, means "devil," and if not for Raye Dene's prodigious understanding that he was not evil, but scared, he probably would have left a hellish legacy. This green broke half mustang-half pinto was wild, and even ran Raye Dene's tiny frame under a tree and knocked her off.
In true gritty Texas fashion, she hopped back on Diablo, and with no saddle between them, you could say that they rode off into the sunset. Although Raye Dene's relationship with Diablo stands out, he was not the only non-human member of the Berry family. Raye Dene had three horses, two dogs, two cats, a bird and a duck. If that is not remarkable enough in itself, they didn't even live on a farm!
This Dr. Doolittle type childhood gave Raye Dene a sensitivity and passion for all living creatures. Her experience with Diablo created a belief that all animals deserve a chance to be loved and understood. This conviction led her to Agape in 2010. She started as a foster and fill-in photographer, but now administers the website and serves as an adoption facilitator. With her Shih tzu, Barclay and former Agape Alum, Ginger, the poodle, Raye Dene has committed her life to finding forever families for Agape's homeless friends.
Photo credit: Harmony Designs Photography
On the inside of Rebecca Sanderson's right wrist is a paw print with a heart in it. If Rebecca's lifelong love for the safety of animals does not show commitment, then one cannot dispute the permanency of a tattooed reminder of a larger dedication to the welfare of innocent animals. "I have always been and will always be the voice for the voiceless," she said. Her life's path confirms her willingness to be that voice.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Rebecca inherited her mother's heart for animal advocacy. While most little girls are playing with dolls and watching cartoons, little Rebecca was an eight year old volunteering to improve the lives of homeless dogs. One could say that she was born to soothe the wounds that brokenness and homelessness inflicts on those in need. Rebecca's compassion for living creatures is not limited to the furry kind. While earning her Bachelor of Science degree from West Chester University, she became involved in rescuing a 12 year old girl, a victim of sex trafficking. She helped connect that little girl with her adoptive family. Perhaps Rebecca's recognition that all souls deserve a family and a chance to know love makes Agape's new office manager so much more than her title expresses.
Rebecca said it best when she said that "the heart within the tattoo symbolizes my heart. My whole heart is in this line of work! I am here to stand tall and fight for animal rights, day in and day out, rain or shine!" With declarations of love and commitment like that, the furry and not so furry friends of Agape Animal Rescue recognize Rebecca Sanderson as a gift to their cause.
Carlos Ruiz moved to Nashville from Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2000 with his wife, two cats and two dogs to explore the Nashville music scene. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he has worked as a studio drummer and has performed around town with various bands and solo artists.
In addition to music, Carlos also spent several years working as a print designer and has a graduate degree in Media Communication from Middle Tennessee State University. After getting interested in interactive communication, he transitioned his design career from print to web and spent a year working for himself as a contractor. It was at this time that Carlos met Tanya Willis and was hired by Agape Animal Rescue — his first client!
Now five years later, he continues working with the organization, which he says is “a model for what a nonprofit should be.”
“They are so good at what they do when it comes to fundraising, creativity and realizing their mission statement,” said Carlos. “It’s one of the most well-organized, well-run organizations I’ve worked with.”
His dogs, Pepper – a German Shepherd mix - and Blakey – a Labrador Retriever mix - were both found as strays. Unfortunately, Blakey recently passed away at the age of 14, a loss which he continues to mourn since the dog had been with him for so long.
“Pepper was found on a chile farm in rural New Mexico,” said Carlos. “Blakey was found near a camp site in Colorado by some friends of ours. They knew we were thinking about adopting a dog, so they brought Blakey straight to us. He was only a few weeks old and was found all alone.”
In addition to his work for Agape, Carlos currently works for Vanderbilt University managing web communications for one of the schools.
Agape would like to extend a sincere “thank you” for all the work Carlos has done to help find forever homes for the Agape dogs.