A Love of Rescue Pets—and Surprising Needy Shelters—Keeps Teen Cancer Fighter Going


In March of 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic sent animal shelters across America scrambling to cope with the crisis, Avery Sontheimer wanted to help. So the teen founded Avery’s Pawsitive Change to raise money for homeless pets.

“I saw a lot of animals needed second chances and a lot of shelters needed help,” the life-long animal lover told The Dog People.

Through donations to her GoFundMe page, Avery started sending $5 gift cards and personal notes of support to animal shelters and rescue organizations from her home in Curry, Pennsylvania. Her six rescue cats–Snuggles, Handsome, Bully, TJ, Tee, and Poodah–helped keep her company as the project grew.

Then in July, Avery got tough news. She was diagnosed with a rare cancer called Ewing sarcoma, which occurs in bones or the soft tissues around them.

Undeterred, she continued sending cards and notes from the hospital as she underwent treatment like chemotherapy.

“It keeps me motivated to just keep going,” she said. “When I get older, I also want to own my own animal shelter. That’s my passion. I see they need second chances, and they’re just so cute.”

Avery continues sending gift cards to animal shelters from Avery’s Pawsitive Change even when in the hospital for cancer treatments. Photo by Kim Chauncey

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Helping Shelter Pets

So far, Avery has sent a whopping 3,295 gift cards to numerous shelters in all 50 states, totaling nearly $25,000.

“We started this all because of the virus, and then it just went viral,” she said.

She and her mom search for organizations on the internet and then surprise them with gift cards if an address is listed on the website.

Sometimes Avery, now 14, sends the cards to shelters in particular need, such as organizations in Texas after February’s winter storm caused widespread power outages across the state.

“They were having a hard time, so we just figured we’d help them,” she said.

Avery holds her rescue cat, Snuggles. Photo by Kim Chauncey

Inspiring Others

Often shelter staff leave messages of support on Avery’s GoFundMe site or her Facebook page, which has grown to over 8,000 followers. Many are animal lovers who share photos and videos of their pets to encourage Avery in her mission and to help buoy her spirits as she battles cancer.

She loves the messages and is grateful to everyone who has donated and shared her page with friends.

“I couldn’t do it without everyone’s help,” she said. “I am very surprised by how big it’s gotten. It’s very rewarding.”

Avery recently launched another project called Avery’s Cans for Paws. For the past five years, she’s recycled cans and bottles to fund-raise for nearby animal shelters–and raised over $4,000 to spend on cleaning products and other supplies the nonprofits need. Now she’s inviting her local community to drop off aluminum cans and plastic bottles outside her home.

Avery’s Cans For Paws invites her neighbors to drop off recycling at her home so she can buy supplies for local animal shelters. Photo by Kim Chauncey

“Keep Going and Stay Positive”

Avery recently headed to Pittsburgh to start her 14th round of chemo. Then she’ll undergo radiation on her lungs and might need lung surgery afterward. Scans on April 5 will determine next steps.

Through it all, the 8th grader plans on writing more cards to send to shelters while she’s in the hospital. She hopes readers will consider donating to her GoFundMe page so she can send as many gift cards as possible while she undergoes this latest round of treatment.

Her advice to others battling cancer: “Keep strong and keep going and stay positive.”

Avery’s mom, Kim Chauncey, said she’s proud of her daughter not only for fighting cancer, but for trying to follow her dreams of opening her own shelter and “helping all these animals.” She said there was never a question that Avery would continue Avery’s Pawsitive Change after her diagnosis.

“I think it actually makes her want to keep going and fighting this cancer–just the love of animals,” she told The Dog People. “She has to keep pushing so she can keep following her dreams.”

The proud mom hopes people will follow Avery’s Facebook page to keep current on upcoming news.

Avery plans to run her own animal shelter when she grows up. Photo by Kim Chauncey

“She’s definitely going to have some new things coming up,” she said. “She gets to make a wish, and she loves running, so we’re going to try to put together a virtual 5K.”

In the meantime, Avery continues to inspire animal lovers around the world as she helps save homeless pets.

Sherri Franklin, founder and CEO of Muttville Senior Dog Rescue in San Francisco, California, said she was delighted when Avery sent a gift card to help older animals.

“We at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue are so honored to be chosen by this truly remarkable 14 year old to be a recipient of her amazing work. We need more humans like her in this world,” she told The Dog People. “We have many tails wagging for her!”

To donate to Avery’s Pawsitive Change, please visit: https://www.gofundme.com/f/avery039s-pawsitive-change-spread-the-love

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