A little more than a year ago, Tehachapi resident Jennie Haberlander opened her mailbox. Among the occasional bill, she found a letter from Vested Interests in K-9s, a nonprofit organization housed in Taunton, Mass., asking for donations to purchase ballistic and stab-proof vests for working police dogs throughout the nation.
The letter included a photo of Oklahoma City Police Officer Sgt. Ryan Stark bending over the casket of his K-9 partner, Kye, in a final goodbye after the canine was killed in the line of duty in 2014.
The photo evoked such emotion in Haberlander that it set in motion a mission to raise funds to outfit more Kern County SWAT dogs with protective vests. Money was raised for three vests, which was celebrated during a ceremony held at the Kern County Sheriff's Office in Bakersfield Friday.
"It just pulled at my heart. I'm sorry … I do this every time," Haberlander said, choking back her tears. "I couldn't let it go, and had to find out about our community and what we did for our canines."
After sending in a modest donation to Vested Interests, Haberlander said she contacted its founder, Sandy Marcel, to find out what more could be done to protect working dogs. She learned the vests must be custom designed for each dog, and normally ranged in price from $2,200 to $2,500; however, Marcel said she worked directly with manufacturers and could get the vests at a discounted rate of $950.
"I would love to buy one for them all, but I can't afford that," Haberlander said.
As luck would have it, one day Haberlander struck up a conversation with a sheriff's deputy who told her that Kern County has five working SWAT dogs; however, due to funding restraints, only one was protected by a vest.
"I felt that it was going to be my mission," said Haberlander. "I had to get those dogs covered. It's like I told that deputy, it doesn't make any sense to me. Why would you send the dog in that wasn't protected because, if something happens to that dog, that officer is next in line?"
Haberlander then contacted Motor City Auto Center in Bakersfield, where she spoke to its chief operating officer, John Pitre.
Said Haberlander, "John is very community minded, and he was very excited about doing this. He and his company took the ball and ran with it. They got Marley's Mutts involved, and held a fundraiser on July 28 of last year, which was also my birthday, so I thought it was a great omen."
According to Mercedes Thayer, social media coordinator for the dealership, Motor City maintains a close relationship with local law enforcement.
"Jennie approached us and asked us to help, and of course we have a close partnership with Marley's Mutts, so we were able to use their platform as well to help raise the money," said Thayer. "We felt that it was important to have these dogs outfitted with vests because they help their human officers protect and serve us, so we want them to be protected as well when they are out in the field."
According to Haberlander, a total of $6,000 was raised.
The Level 3A ballistic vests protect against firearms larger than .45 caliber.
"It was overwhelming," KCSO Metropolitan Patrol Division Sgt. Mark Jackson said of the community support. "They wanted to do everything they could for the K-9s assigned to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. I was very pleased with the outpouring of support. The donation is well-received here, especially in the budget times that we face. This has been a great asset to the K-9 unit."
To date, Vested Interests in K-9s has donated more than 3,200 vests to working police dogs in every state, according to its founder.
"What an awesome lady," Marcel said of Haberlander. "I'm happy to hear that someone has joined us in their passion to help keep dogs safe. It's necessary. Today, there was a canine laid to rest in Palm Beach County in Florida who was killed in the line of duty on Christmas Eve."
For more information on Vested Interests in K-9s, visit vik9s.org.
TBC Media's Mark Nessia contributed to this report.