Despite its long tenure in the Tampa Bay Area, Friends of Strays was one of the lesser known animal shelters in town until Dara Eckart took over in November 2016. That’s when Friends of Strays began expanding its programming, building community partnerships and putting on events with local breweries. Those combined efforts have dramatically increased the shelter's visibility. In just one year, from 2016 to 2017, adoptions nearly doubled, from 570 adoptions to 1028. Now, Eckart is charting a course for expansion over the next five years and beyond.
Years in St. Pete
Living in St. Pete for 2.5 years.
Organizations involved in
Friends of Strays and Social Women in Motion, a social organization that raises funds for local charities.
What gets you out of bed every day?
Every day I get out of bed excited to see what animals are in our shelter and what we can do to help them find their forever homes. That’s my biggest motivation, trying to help animals.
Why St. Pete?
Funny thing is, my husband and I used to vacation here in St. Pete, we would go spend time on Pass-a-Grille, we came down here very couple of years for vacation. The last time that we were here, we were living in Indiana and thinking about going back up there for the next winter was just something that I didn’t want to do. So we decided, sitting on the beach, that we really needed to live in St. Pete. So I made it my mission when we got home to make that happen.
What is one habit that you keep?
When I get to work in the morning, I always go through the shelter and say hello to all of the staff, ask them how their day is and what’s going on that day. And then take time to talk to all of the animals as well.
Who are some people that influence you?
One of my very biggest mentors was Fred Cate, he worked at Indiana University when I was there, he was the executive director of the cyber security center that I helped manage. Just an amazing, giving person who believed in my in a time that I needed that and helped me grow managerial skills. He’s also an incredibly generous person and an animal lover. He donated money to the Indianapolis Zoo to purchase an elephant that needed to come to the zoo to survive.
What is one piece of insight - a book, methodology, practice - that you would share with our readers?
I think it’s really important that you try and find something that you love. When I was working at Indiana University, I enjoyed my time there, and it gave me some really good experiences. But toward the end of my time there, I started to realize that I was nearing 50 and I really wanted to do something I was passionate about. Sometimes it’s better to take a cut in pay if you have to to follow your heart, because it has made such a difference for me.
What is one thing you wish you knew about your work 3 years ago?
I wish I knew how mentally draining it can be. It can be very stressful. Running an organization, you have a lot of responsibility, of course. You’re responsible for staff, that they have jobs at the end of the day. You’re responsible for all of these animals and making sure that they get into good homes and that they’re not lingering in the shelter. It’s a lot of stress, and it can be very draining, but at the end of the day it’s worth it.
For the shelter in particular, we are going to be expanding. We’re going to be building a new shelter, hopefully in the next five years. We are starting a capital campaign and we are currently looking for property to purchase in St. Petersburg. We are at our capacity of what we can manage right now for animals. We’re not going to be able to grow the shelter and help more animals in the community if we’re not able to expand. We’ve had a wonderful donation from a gentleman who passed away in the spring. We’re going to get not quite $2 million from a trust that he left us because he believed in our mission and the work that we do. Personally, I’m going to be buying a house here soon and becoming a permanent resident of St. Pete, which I’m super excited about because St. Pete is the most amazing city, it’s artistic and beautiful and it’s the place to be.