The Face of Philanthropy

A regular feature of the Chronicle of Philanthropyusually about three pages in – is ‘The Face of Philanthropy,’ with a marvelous photograph effectively illustrating the impact of a not-for-profit program.

Two faces came to mind the other day when I received an email about a fundraising event from Debbie Jeter, CEO and Cofounder of Bear Path Acres Animal Education Center in Virginia’s Southampton County. The first face was that of a remarkable bear that is depicted above Debbie’s email signature. The second is Debbie’s.

Debbie emailed us a year or so ago asking for information about setting up an endowment. I drove out to see her not knowing what to expect when I arrived at what looked like a home 10 miles off the main road. There was a hand painted wooden sign about tours planted at the front and a small Bear Path Acres sign by the driveway. Somewhat tremulously I made my way between two large barking dogs to the door where Debbie greeted me and immediately took me on a tour. 

Out of sight behind the house was a large fenced-in area you would not believe unless you see it. In state-of-the-art enclosures built by volunteers I met the most amazing array of animals. I say ‘met’ because Debbie introduced me to each animal with its story. I won’t detail them here but you can see pictures of many at bearpathacres.com. I learned that zoos and wildlife centers across America turn to Debbie when they don’t know what to do with an animal. I was stunned to see the clearly delighted responses to her as she approached Chief, a half Bengal/half Siberian 750-800 pound tiger, a very special and very large bear, and other unusual animals, many of them abused and unmanageable before coming to her.

Bear Path Acres is a USDA Class C Licensed Zoo Exhibitor and a Licensed State Wildlife Educator with no paid staff. Its mission is fueled by its finding that there was a great need to provide a safe haven for unwanted, unloved, abused, neglected, and malnourished exotic animals. Its vision statement declares that “All the animals in Bear Path Acres care will thrive in a clean, safe, nurturing, and stimulating environment.”

The house is Debbie’s and her husband’s and serves as an education center and nursery with a small meeting room. Debbie’s office is whatever empty chair she finds where she can park herself with her laptop on her lap. She’s been at it for 30 years and has dedicated her life and estate to the extraordinary care Bear Path Acres provides for its animals. What she and her hands-on volunteers do is incredible.

She is passionate about her work and her special passion that day was a bear with a story too long to tell here but if you click on the pictures of a number of animals on the website their stories are there.

Now, there’s another side of Debbie’s passion, and that is a fierce determination to do whatever has to be done to ensure proper care for an animal in need of a home. Woe be it to the federal, state, not-for-profit, or for-profit officials who stand in the way of ensuring appropriate care for an animal. They will feel her wrath as well they should.

Back to those two faces. I met the bear face to face and am moved every time I see it depicted in her emails because she told me its story. Debbie’s visage is one of determination. She’s hard-nosed with no nonsense when it comes to her work. You don’t recognize her passion until you hear her talk about the animals and see what she and a dedicated band of volunteers have done for them. It has been a privilege for us to support them with gifts and pro bono counsel.