Charlene Penney had a life decision to make in 2014.
The former Riverivew resident and her boyfriend from St. Lucia were trying to decide where to settle down.
"Do we want to stay in cold Canada or warm St. Lucia?" she asked.
They decided on St. Lucia, in the Caribbean.
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Once there, Penney took her love of animals and a degree in non-profit management and started an animal rescue.
HelpAWS, which stands for "help animal welfare St. Lucia", has grown from a one person operation to an international non-profit operating in three countries.
"You know there's a lot of stray animals in St. Lucia, a lot of dogs that maybe have owners but they do roam free, not a lot of spaying and neutering things like that — doing basic care, flea and tick treatment, vaccinations, deworming, we don't get a lot of that being done down there," Penney said.
Penney said many dogs have been adopted in Toronto, and about a dozen have been placed in her hometown of Riverview.
Getting used to winter
She said the dogs quickly learn to adjust to a colder climate.
"We send a lot of dogs just before it starts getting a little too cold so they can still adapt and a lot of adopters will buy them jackets and snow suits and little booties and they look ridiculous but at least they stay warm," she said.
"I feel bad for them but they're getting amazing lives. We send a lot of dogs to Canada, some to the states. Some have even made their way to Germany and England. It's a better life for them over here."
HelpAWS also conducts spray and neuter clinics, with vets coming in to help from all over.
Penney said over the last three or four years, more than 2,000 animals have been neutered, preventing future abuse and neglect.
Strays on the island are often referred to as "pot cakes", a term which refers to strays with big ears.
"These dogs are actually really great dogs because they've built up immunity. They've had to survive a lot of viruses because they don't really get vaccinated so these are like the fittest, most resilient dogs that you can get really," Penney said.
Penney said she's thankful she's been able to help others and she's also adopted a few rescue animals of her own including five dogs, seven cats and soon to be four horses.