When lifelong animal lover Theresa Strader heard about a massive dog auction in Missouri in 2007, she thought she would check out the scene and adopt a pet or two.
“I said, ‘I’m set up to take care of two or three of them,’ ” remembers Strader, 48, a pediatric nurse and mom of four from Black Forest, Colo.
But when she arrived at the auction site – a collection of tents set up by a large-scale commercial breeder going out of business, a.k.a. a “puppy mill,” says Strader – it broke her heart.
“The first thing that hits you,” says Strader, “is the smell. Then you are overwhelmed by the emotion of seeing dogs live like that, in cages, frantic. These were dogs who never felt the sunshine on them.”
Appalled, Strader ended up adopting 13 of the 561 dogs up for auction – and that was just the beginning. That February, she founded the nonprofit National Mill Dog Rescue, which has since housed, rehabilitated or found homes for more than 6,900 dogs, from poodles to pugs, cavaliers to chihuahuas.
At her 160-acre facility, Strader and a team of 1,400 volunteers, plus a small paid veterinary staff, “take immaculate care of every single dog. We don’t cherry-pick,” she says. “We take everybody.”
Sherrie Lidderdale can attest to that. In August 2011, she adopted a Welsh corgi from Strader.
“Most people who love animals know about Theresa and all of the work that she does,” says Lidderdale. “It’s just so cool when one single individual can make such a huge difference.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine