PENFIELD -- Scott Stewart has witnessed the anxiety hospice patients suffer when they don't know what's going to become of their beloved pets.
Unfortunately, he said, too many dying patients have to give up their pets when they go into hospice care and don't see them again.
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"What happens to some of these animals is they end up in kill shelters or somebody in the family puts them down," he said.
Stewart, who is a Carle hospice nurse, and his wife, Jessica Sempek, want a kinder solution for people who are dying and the animals that have been part of their lives.
They've launched Hospice Hearts Sanctuary, a new organization, with a goal of building a sanctuary on their own property in Penfield for several of the pets of area hospice patients.
Sempek said she and her husband will donate the land, and they hope to raise $20,000 for the building shell to house the animals. They have plans for donated labor to finish the inside, she said.
The shelter would house about three to five dogs and eight to 12 cats for hospice patients from Champaign, Ford, Piatt, and Vermilion counties with six months or less to live, and volunteers would work to maintain a relationship between pets and their dying owners, Sempek said.
After the owners pass away, she said, the organization will work to find a new home for the pets and continue to provide a home for those that aren't adoptable.
"We want it to be a peaceful place," she said.
Stewart said the idea for the sanctuary grew out of his work as a hospice nurse and seeing patients worrying about their pets. "During the course of my career, I've had many encounters with patients who had pets where there was just no place for them to go," he said.
Hospice is about providing comfort at the end of life, Sempek said.
She and her husband hope to see some hospice patients comforted knowing their dogs and cats will be OK, she said.
As for the animals themselves, they'll need comfort, too, and space to grieve, Sempek said.
"They are little emotional beings with psychological needs, too," she said.
Champaign County Humane Society Executive Director Mary Tiefenbrunn said the local Humane Society doesn't have the resources to maintain a relationship between a pet and its person -- even a dying person -- once a pet has been surrendered, though death of an owner is one of the reasons animals are given to the Humane Society.
Tiefenbrunn said she's familiar with the Hospice Hearts Sanctuary plans.
"What they want to do, I think, there is definitely a need for it. It's a wonderful, humane thing to do for the humans and the animals, to allow them to have a relationship. It's just not something we're able to do."
Stewart and Sempek are both well familiar with the animal-human bond. They have three dogs and four indoor cats of their own and take care of two or three outdoor feral cats at any given time. And they consider their pets family, they said.
Sempek also has a health care connection through her work for Carle, coordinating the continuing medical education program for physicians, she said. While both she and her husband work for Carle, the organization is an independent project of their own, they said.
Construction of the sanctuary in northeast Champaign County would start in the fall, with a goal of opening by next January, Sempek said.
Hospice Hearts Sanctuary has applied to the state to be registered as a charitable organization and is in the process of seeking nonprofit status from the IRS, the couple said.