For Charlene Sangenario Dumais, it was her life’s passion to nurture the abandoned, mistreated and homeless animals that she encountered volunteering at a local animal shelter and working as a surgical veterinary technician at VCA Northboro Animal Hospital.
It was because of this love of animals and her tireless effort toward their well-being that Charlene’s family, friends, and coworkers started the nonprofit organization Paws for the Cause after Charlene’s diagnosis of breast cancer.
“Charlene was a really great person and everyone loved her,” said Denise Sangenario McNeil, Charlene’s sister and a dental hygienist from Worcester.
“She really knew how to make a person feel welcome. She loved working with animals and loved what she did. She definitely was able to tap into people’s hearts.”
Along with her sister Denise, Charlene was survived by her parents Gary and Susan Sangenario, her twin sister Jennifer, and two brothers Michael and Matthew, all of Worcester.
“She was a family person. She loved my family and always made sure we were safe. She was always the one that watched over us,” McNeil said. “When you met her, you just knew she was a special person.”
Charlene grew up in Worcester and graduated from Holy Name Central Catholic High School and Clark University. She married Dan Dumais in 2007 and moved to Boylston.
In 2010, at 31, Charlene was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, a form of cancer that is aggressive, difficult to treat, and is more likely to spread and recur, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc.
In the wake of Charlene’s diagnosis, Paws for the Cause was born, inspired by Charlene, and immediately began to raise funds for those fighting breast cancer.
Three years later, on Nov. 4, 2013, Charlene, 34, died.
“Charlene was warm and kind and generous. She always did the right thing and she always helped you figure out how to do the right thing,” said Rebecca Clark, a former coworker of Charlene’s who serves as clerk for Paws for the Cause. “She was always caring and always thinking about other people, animals and creatures and the value of life.”
The organization’s largest fundraiser, The Fur Ball (Saturday, Feb. 13, Wachusett Country Club, West Boylston) is in its sixth year.
The event features music, dancing, a raffle, and hors d’oeuvres provided by Wachusett Country Club. Charlene’s father, Gary Sangenario, is executive chef at the club.
“Every time I walk into the Wachusett Country Club and see the beautiful job Charlene’s family has done with setting up the event and the delicious, amazing food that her dad makes, and all the people that have come together, it makes me feel so warm,” Clark said.
“It’s just a lovely, lovely evening.”
At the first Fur Ball in 2011, Charlene was in attendance and all proceeds went toward her treatment.
Charlene would also attend the next two Fur Ball events, assisting other Paws for the Cause members in raising funds for cancer patients who needed help with medical costs.
“For us, continuing the Fur Ball after Charlene passed was really important because it represented something she loved so much: giving back to the community that she got so much support from,” McNeil said.
Along with Clark, the Paws for the Cause team includes Charlene’s husband, Dan, president; twin sister, Jennifer, director; treasurer Mike Olesak; and directors Melissa Dudley and Kristina Olesak.
For past events, the organization has sold upwards of 300 tickets.
“We’ve had a lot of great people brave the weather and travel from pretty far. We have a lot of brave souls come out and still support us,” McNeil said.
To date, Paws for the Cause has raised more than $70,000 with a variety of fundraisers, including yard sales and bake sales, but the Fur Ball draws the largest total contributions.
On average, the Fur Ball raises $10,000 to $15,000 each year. Last year’s event brought in $11,500.
Over the past two years, with the proceeds raised from the Fur Ball and other fundraising efforts, Paws for the Cause has donated nearly $45,000 to women battling breast cancer and their families.
The proceeds go to these women for expenses they’re having trouble handling because of their care and their treatment. These include household bills; gas money to get to doctor appointments; money for medication, co-payments and insurance payments; and rent if they have to move into facilities that can accommodate them.
Proceeds from Paws for the Cause also go to The Breast Friends Connection, a Worcester County survivors support group.
In 2015, Paws for the Cause also contributed money to a clinical trial spot at the Dana Farber Institute for a study of triple negative breast cancer.
“They always need more to open up more spots in these clinical trials. That’s something we learned right up front with Charlene. A clinical trial can be really important. Any money towards another spot for another woman is something we want to try to help with,” Clark said.
McNeil said, “We not only want the Fur Ball to be a fundraiser to raise money, but also something that helps build awareness and let people know that we’re out here and what we’re doing.”
“A lot of women don’t realize that we’re around, and while we can’t give out a ton of money, we have given out a decent amount to help cover the costs associated with their care,” McNeil added.
To make a donation to Paws for the Cause, or purchase tickets to the Fur Ball, visit Petsgivingback.org. Visit this page when purchasing lift tickets to Wachusett Mountain, and $10 per ticket sold will go to Paws for the Cause. Patients or families seeking financial support from the organization for cancer treatment may apply here.