Schiller's nonprofit has donated 60 K-9s to 17 cash-strapped police departments across the country
In December 2009, Kristi Schiller saw a story on the local TV news that devastated her.
The K-9 unit dog of Deputy Constable Ted Dahlin, of Harris County, Texas, had been strangled to death by a burglary suspect.
“This poor officer,” Schiller, 44, tells PEOPLE. “It was a member of his family, and this dog died protecting him.”
So Schiller – a Houston wife, mom and animal lover whose four dogs go everywhere with her – decided to get him another one.
“I didn’t want the dog to die in vain,” she says.
She soon found out it wasn’t that easy.
After pitching her idea to as high up as the Texas governor, Schiller quickly learned that an individual can’t just give a police department a K-9, due to complex departmental policies coupled with the steep price of training. It costs a minimum of $10,000 to purchase and train one dog, and K-9 units are usually the first go in budget cuts.
But Schiller didn’t let that stop her.
In 2010, she created K9s4COPS, a nonprofit that provides K-9s trained in narcotics, explosives and firearms detection to police across the country.
To date, 60 of her trained dogs are catching bad guys for police departments in 17 states, and she has a waiting list with no fewer than 85 officers on it.
Some $47.6 million worth of narcotics and 97 guns have been seized with the help of K9s4COPS dogs.
“This is a great thing she’s doing,” says Charles Mesloh, a K-9 expert and criminal justice professor at Northern Michigan University. “I’m not aware of any other [program like Schiller’s].”
Schiller, meanwhile, says it’s a labor of love.
“I sat on 13 different boards when I started this,” reveals Schiller, a native Texan with a colorful past as a radio broadcaster and Playboy model, “and I got off every single one because I felt so passionate about moving forward with this.”
Initially funding her mission out of her own pocket, Schiller has since raised more than $2.4 million for her charity.
That support has gone a long way.
When Houston County Deputy John Walker’s longtime partner, Bosco, retired, his department didn’t have funding to replace the dog.
Walker faced the possibility of finishing his career as a dogless patrolman when Schiller came to the rescue, donating Gorbi, a German shepherd, to him in 2011.
“He’s a part of me,” Walker says of his new partner.
Schiller, a gun owner and NRA member, is also deeply opposed to an effort in Texas and other states to allow teachers to carry guns in schools, fearing they will do more harm than good.
So far, K9s4KIDS has placed trained dogs in five Texas schools, and another is being trained for a private school on Long Island, New York.
Westside Elementary School music teacher Parrish Gayle says that having a dog around her Angleton, Texas, school “adds tremendously” to the safety procedures put in place after Newtown.
“A dog makes you pause, and he’s a huge deterrent that helps you feel safe,” she says.
When Schiller first contacted Dahlin following the loss of his dog, he was skeptical of the socialite’s idea. That perception quickly changed.
“She is an amazing person,” says Dahlin, who no longer works with dogs but sits on her board of directors.
“I could never have imagined something this great coming from such a tragic situation.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine