Stephen Bennett, Executive Director
Born to a family and culture of Italian descent, Stephen Bennett comes from Ithaca, NY. His early years of work and education took him across the nation working in restaurants until owning a catering service and deli in NJ. Here he studied acting under James Lipton in Greenwich Village, NY. Soon after in 1992 Stephen opted to move back to sunny FL where he previously lived in 1997. This move however would be to the FL West Coast where he fell in love with St. Petersburg and the beautiful beaches of Tampa Bay.
Stephen soon became friends with a dog groomer who encouraged he follow his passion and pursue work that involved animals. He suggested he give dog grooming a try. He loved this idea and enrolled in the only dog grooming school in Tampa at that time.
Shortly after enrolling Stephen heard of an opportunity to purchase a grooming and boarding shop in Pinellas County. He drove over that evening immediately following class to see the business. Although he was enrolled in a class for it, Stephen had never been in a dog grooming shop in his life. Standing there looking at the shop for sale, it just felt right. With help from his parents Henry and Sophie for the down payment, Stephen became a proud new owner of his own boarding and grooming facility which he named Top Dog.
The next 13 years were formative. He often helped local animal rescue organizations with free boarding and grooming. Often the animals were victims of shut down puppy mills. They would need to be completely shaved down and cleaned. Some were in such poor health they could not be saved, but Stephen was always there to offer help.
In 2005, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, had a profound impact on Stephen as the footage of abandoned dogs and cats on rooftops, from flooding, was devastating. The cries of people not being allowed to bring their pets into shelters and having no choice but to leave them behind were just heartbreaking. Many displaced animals were relocated to Tampa Bay. Aware of the limited space in area shelters, Stephen opened the doors of Top Dog where he fostered many cats and dogs until they could be placed in safe loving homes.
He wanted to do more. From this need to help and the knowledge of how time constraining directly caring for the animals would come a new, streamlined idea. On November 1, 2015, SOAR was officially born. He began to raise pet food, supplies and funds for already existing area rescues as well as individuals in need who had no one to turn to during financially hard times. He knew with short term help until on their feet, the owners would not be forced to surrender their pets to area shelters where they would likely be euthanized.
SOAR immediately began making a name for themselves in St. Petersburg with food drives and fundraisers. As the organization began to take a foothold, Stephen had another realization. With pollution at record high levels — pollution caused directly by people, not industrial pollution — he knew he could help to address this issue. Much of the sea life in our invaluable ecosystem are dying from swallowing plastics, cigarette butts, and garbage dumped in our streets and ending up in waterways. He contacted the nonprofit “Keep Pinellas Beautiful” and asked if they would teach SOAR how to organize area beach clean ups and together they removed thousands of pounds of trash and recyclables from local area beaches and waters.
Stephen continues to lead SOAR into partnering and networking with animal rescues large and small to accomplish the ever important mission of being a voice for those who have no voice. SOAR is proud to be a member of St. Pete PAWS, a coalition stemming from the MARS corporation “Better Cities for Pets” program which challenges cities nationwide to make their cities more pet friendly and safe for our animal friends.
Stephen resides in St. Petersburg with his partner Michael and their rescue dog Nicholas, a.k.a. Goozel. Stephen and Michael have been pet parents of up to 8 dogs and cats at once, often focusing on older pets who are much harder to be placed. They recently said goodbye to their rescue dog Bella who lived to be 21 years old and was spoiled to the very end.