February 2014

The Rebirth of the Bluffton Dog Park

Author: Debbie Szpanka

As the huge blade of the bush hog sucked the underbrush into its cavity and quashed, cut and diced it into mulch, a few acres of overgrown vegetation off of Buckwalter Parkway in Bluffton soon produced an outline that one day would be the Bluffton Dog Park. As longtime supporters of a dog park looked on in mid-November, it was the moment they knew the path to building a dog park was smoothing out before them.
“I never knew dirt would look so good,” said Cheryl Raugh, president of the Bluffton Dog Parks. “It is a beautiful sight and site.”

Since August of 2013, the new board of directors of the Friends of the Bluffton Dog Parks revamped the organization, established new policies and procedures, changed banks, changed PayPal accounts and produced a new website and Facebook page. Just as the bush hog took twisted overgrown vegetation and smoothed out an outline for the park, the new board also had its work cut out for it. Installed just four months ago, they had a mess to smooth out, and they have quickly plowed forward to build a park.

A tangled mess
The six-year-old organization had raised nearly $19,000; that’s about half of what it needed for the fencing, irrigation and park amenities such as benches to build a dog park. The former president, William Grooms, embezzled nearly the entire account, leaving only $854.04.

Once the former board members discovered the missing money, they took their findings to the police. According to records of the Friends of the Bluffton Dog Parks, most of the money was stolen in 2012; the remaining was stolen in 2013. Bluffton Police officers charged the president of the organization with stealing in June, 2013. In mid-July, Grooms committed suicide.

Carl Brinkman, the new treasurer of the organization, spent countless hours combing through bank records and comparing them to the organization’s reports so the new board had a clear picture of what happened.
“While Grooms stole thousands, it was paying for his rent with a check from the organization; that struck everyone as brazen,” Raugh said.

Organizational bush-hogging
Rewind to July of 2013 when the organization called a public meeting. The former board members decided they all needed to resign and ask the public for new officers. The future of the organization depended on people stepping up to carry on its mission.

Raugh, a Hampton Hall resident who is a professional project manager for media companies, attended the meeting. She owns an extremely energetic golden retriever, Boone, whom she walks nearly three miles a day and her dog still has energy to burn.

Raugh assessed the situation. “There are three components of every project: resources, budget and a timeline,” she said. “Sometimes the wheels of a project come off the track; the objective is to get everyone aligned, pointed in a forward-moving direction and taking one step at a time towards a common goal.”

In the following weeks, Raugh reached out to several people who were at the July meeting who she thought would be “change agents.” Crescent resident Gary McCarney spoke publicly about being willing to rebuild the website. Debbie Szpanka, owner of a retired greyhound racer, said she would head the organization’s public relations and fundraising efforts. Carl Brinkman, owner of two Great Danes and former chief financial officer of several Silicon Valley companies, stepped up to be the new board’s first treasurer. (Brinkman has since moved to Virginia.) Diana Radcliffe, former head of a statewide non-profit, said she would help in any way. Deborah Karambelas, owner of Karambelas Enterprises and several hunting dogs, also stepped up for a board position.

Clearing the site
By August 5, 2013, a new board was assembled. “Each new member of the board brought to the table a professional set of skills that complemented each other,” Raugh said. “We are diverse, professional and angry—those qualities combined were great motivators.” Within a month, the board revamped the organization, established strict financial policies and procedures, changed banks, changed PayPal accounts and produced a new website.

“It was important to say to the community, ‘We are clearing the slate and starting again,’” Raugh said. “Trust had to be established as we took a running start out of the gate.”

By November 2013, the new board had raised more than $19,000, replacing all the money raised in six years in just three months’ time. The new board plus a dedicated corps of supporters, organized the “Bark in the Park” fundraiser in Bluffton’s Promenade, held October 12. That event alone raised more than $10,000.

“What has humbled me and the entire board is the dedication and generosity of supporters; we had so many silent auction items donated the day of the event, we didn’t have enough room to display them,” Raugh said. “We were overwhelmed with the community support and enthusiasm.”

Several businesses have also provided tremendous support, which started a chain-reaction of more support. Ligato’s Fine Jewelers was the first business to step forward. Rose Ligato held a watch battery fundraiser, which brought in more than $1,000. Karambelas Enterprises has donated thousands of dollars’ worth of promotional items such as bumper stickers, banners, logo design and so forth. Morning Sock Studios, of Hilton Head Island, has also donated thousands of dollars of design work for posters, advertisements and flyers. Camp Greendog, a doggie daycare and kennel, has also given thousands of dollars in services and donations. Diana Bourgeois, owner of Magic Marketing U.S.A., a social media company, has spearheaded the organization’s social media efforts and joined the board.

The organization also now has the dedication of strong supporters and each member is vital to a successful outcome. Ani Shields of Bluffton has been dubbed the organization’s “courier.” Since most of the board members work fulltime, Shields volunteers to run errands such as picking up silent auctions items, dropping off materials and so forth. “This means a lot to me, because a dog park is a sign of a healthy community,” Shields said. “To have a place where a dog can burn off excess energy is physically healthy for the dog and mentally-healthy for owners.”

Lauren Porter, a professional dog masseuse, donated her services to the “Bark in the Park,” event. “Dog people are usually good people, and a local dog park helps good people gather together and share their experiences with dogs and with life,” she said. 

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