Where there is Love, there is Always Life
Years ago in Egypt, I needed a camel ride back to my hotel after working on an archeological project where I’d been researching Egyptian priestesses. I stood with my friends and stared in awe at the vastness of the desert plateau when a few frantic Arabic screams approached fast, horses neighed and cartwheels whirred.
I met with the brutally exhausted, heartbroken gaze of an emaciated, heavily decorated horse pulling a cart full of happy people uphill. The driver beat the horse relentlessly to make the horse pull that impossible weight. Ironically, the horse donned colorful fabric, perhaps for a tour or a wedding-party ride. But I believe the decorations might have also been a way to cover up the horse’s bruises and wounds.
The people on the cart nonchalantly took photos of their surroundings, oblivious to the abuse. If I had a better grasp of Arabic––I’d only taken a 6-month course in college––I’d have stepped up and said something to stop the brutality. I could have yelled something in English, or French, but, honestly, I froze in the shadow of such unspeakable cruelty. That horse’s glance has been the catalyst for the Rifugio Isola del Sole, Italian for “Refuge of the Island of the Sun”. Our work in Sicily provides a sanctuary for animals. It’s a way of showing that where there is love, there is always life.
A few months ago, my boyfriend Jon and I took a tour of the largest animal sanctuary in the United States, called Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, on 3700-acres in Southern Utah, nestled in a gorgeous canyon called Angel Canyon. On the tour, I realized that my journey to save animals had really begun there. I’d set a powerful intention in 2014 while living in Colorado right after my divorce and my mom’s death. During this time of healing, I had a strong urge to do something meaningful.
I smiled while I watched my girly dog Piper play in the field surrounding the sanctuary on my recent trip. It seemed like yesterday when I’d rescued her on that very spot six years before. The truth is, Piper’s rescued me. She’s been by my side ever since.
During my tumultuous period in 2014, I enrolled in one of the Best Friends’ workshops, called How to Start and Run an Animal Sanctuary, which they still offer about three times a year. I seriously doubted myself and even felt crazy for signing up since I had no experience developing such an ambitious project. I’ll never forget how amazing it felt to listen to Faith Maloney, Co-Founder of Best Friends, talk about opening the sanctuary with no expertise. She simply had the desire.
When the workshop came to a close, Faith left me with these parting words, “Have faith, don’t become discouraged, because something will definitely come out of it if you maintain a positive attitude. No matter how daunting the project.”
To my great surprise, I’d open up a sanctuary in the most unexpected way on the other side of the world five years later in my home country of Italy, on the island of Sicily. I would meet my Co-Founder, Tecla after she received a call from a tourist volunteer around Easter. That our meeting would be during a holiday of rebirth would reflect much about the meaning of our relationship. I met her after she helped deliver 8 puppies (1 of them died) from an abandoned pregnant dog in her care. Tecla has been taking care of animals as her livelihood for over a decade.
“I want to give you a hand and expand your business. Maybe I could help by building more dog crates in your garden?”
I saw the light in her eyes and knew I could definitely help her with the fundraising. She needed the kennel to survive because a cancer diagnosis led her to close her stores. After being cured of cancer, she had no money, needed to make a living, and began caring for stray animals. Immediately, I discovered her to be a marvelous person. We clicked because we shared the same wavelength and way of looking at the world.
“Ever since I was a child,” she said, “I’ve been disobedient and proud of that fact.”
This is why I love her, I thought to myself.
She told me one time that she feels the spirit and soul of a dog, even in its bark.
We made a great partnership. Tecla helped navigate bureaucracy and veterinarians, while I handled fundraising. Together, we sterilized 120 stray dogs and about 60 stray cats. Lack of money for sterilization and proper education creates a scenario where dogs and cats coming from low-income families––like those of the shepherds and cowherds––keep reproducing because they haven’t sterilized their animals. They typically abandon new litters near or inside big garbage dumpsters that line the streets of Sicily. Many puppies and kittens die by poisoning, burning, and other cruel methods, like kidnapping them for scientific experiments.
I was ecstatic when my son Blaise finally traveled to Sicily with me and met Tecla. It’d been quite a journey, traveling from Egypt to Utah, and back to Sicily to meet with the woman that might help me transform my dream into reality. Now, having Blaise in Sicily made it all so much more real and more fun. I’ll never forget what Tecla said when she met my son for the first time when he was nineteen years old.
“He’s gorgeous,” she said, “He looks just like you!”
While we definitely clashed on a few subjects, Blaise and I almost always finished each other’s sentences, and frequently in the crush of people in some foreign place, we’d silently know exactly what the other was thinking. And I would need his lighthearted spirit more than ever in our search for the location of the sanctuary.
Blaise, Tecla, and I had to become tougher than we thought possible, to overcome the horrible sights and discoveries we made during our search for land. We didn’t expect to deal with property owners that often lived in remote areas and usually spoke only their own Sicilian dialect. And were even more surprised about having to deal with the innumerable, archaic laws of each town and village.
If we had known then what we know now, I wonder if we’d have fallen victim to the same opinion everyone else had about our idea––“no one in their right state of mind would ever consider opening up a sanctuary for animals in such a place”. But we relentlessly searched, anyway. I recall Blaise, Tecla and I had twelve appointments one day and ended up driving around for what seemed like years, only to discover unscrupulous sellers had misled us almost every time with land on floodplains or unbuildable lots.
Discouraging didn’t even describe the process. I can’t count the number of times at day’s end that Tecla, Blaise, and I wondered what in the world we were doing in Southern Sicily looking for something that we couldn’t really put our fingers on. Our three hearts were full of love and our three minds brimmed with ideas, knowing where we wanted to go, but seemingly without a roadmap.
During the process, Blaise and I stayed in a small three-story bed-and-breakfast that stood in the ancient Jewish quarter of Ortigia island, the ancient ghetto, tightly surrounded by a conglomerate of jagged Medieval rooftops overlooking a calm sea. One night I sat on the rooftop of our bed-and-breakfast, staring at the village’s twinkling lights. I lost myself within the dimly lit cobblestone streets brimming with people, walking and talking amongst the dreamy atmosphere just as the ancient Greeks, Spaniards, and Hebrews had centuries before.
A magical feeling infused my spirit amid our search’s turmoil. A small voice told me to slow down and hit the “pause” button. I looked to the night sky, dotted with awe-inspiring cloud formations, and something indescribable filled my heart with hope. My dream had already come true. I was in Sicily, finally, with my own precious son.
“Don’t stop the dance, Mom!” Blaise would say when the going got tough.
Before visiting Sicily, a prestigious acting school in Los Angeles accepted him into their program. His prospects were great––working on nonprofit documentary films while uncovering the difficulties of the world throughout his travels. We wanted to work together. I would write and fundraise, and Blaise would create and direct documentary films. He had particularly liked improvisation, which reflected his free spirit. A spirit that is now free forever.
I had no idea that amid establishing the animal sanctuary in Sicily, I would need sanctuary most. Tecla and I dedicated Rifugio Isola del Sole to my son Blaise, after he took his life. Years prior, when Tecla and I conceived of the sanctuary, it was our experience that we could transform anything dark––a rebellious past, being the black sheep, not fitting in, feelings of unworthiness and shame. However, we did not understand how dark the world would become. Or how love in action can heal the heart.
Now that Blaise is no longer with me in the physical plane, his spirit helps me understand things from a higher, more detached perspective. We’ve dedicated Rifugio Isola del Sole to him and are planting 21 olive trees, one for each year of his life. This gesture isn’t about trying to keep his memory alive. I know that his spirit is everywhere. I feel him in the wind, in the sun. I feel him giving me advice and hope, and his typical wit inspires me to keep going. Where there is love, there is always life.