Animal Lover Scarlett Died of Brain Cancer, But Her Community Has Carried On Her Cause
While Scarlett Chwatko was undergoing treatment for brain cancer, she was always dreaming up ideas for how she could help animals and other sick children. In December 2018, she realized what her cause was going to be. She handed her mother, Robin Chwatko, a piece of paper she had been scribbling on.
Scarlett had drawn what would become the Draw for Paws logo. Scarlett explained that she wanted to help the SPCA of Westchester. Her idea was simple: For every time someone donated $20 to the SPCA, she would draw their pet or favorite animal. After Scarlett died at age 8 in March 2019, her family, friends, and community carried on her cause.
Now more than 75 artists participate in a program, and the Scarly Squad (everyone who participates in Draw for Paws initiatives) has even helped pet parents in need during the pandemic.
Scarlett's Animal-Focused Life
"Scarlett was the most independent and spunky person I have ever met from a very young age," Robin tells Daily Paws. Scarlett was born with a compassion for animals. Her first word was even "dog." Scarlett loved playing veterinarian with her many stuffed animals—all of which had names, personalities, and favorite foods. When she would leave for school, she would let her mom know who needed medicine during the day.
Scarlett also loved watching animal-focused movies, TV shows, and happy rescue videos. Before the family could watch any movie or TV show, they had to check doesthedogdie.com to make sure that no animals died or were injured.
For Scarlett's fourth birthday, she asked if she could have puppies and kittens attend and get toys for dogs instead of gifts for herself. Robin reached out to the SPCA in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., to see if they could help make this happen. The SPCA brought two puppies to her birthday party, and instead of gifts, all of her friends brought dog food and toys to donate.
This was only the start of Scarlett and the Chwatkos relationship with the SPCA. The SPCA let Scarlett participate in their junior volunteer program from a young age because of her maturity, compassion, and reliability. The Chwatkos participated in animal transports bringing dogs from shelters in the South to shelters in the Northeast that are in a better position to care for them.
Scarlett also often served as a junior cage captain at adoption events, sitting amidst the puppies to keep them calm and happy until they were adopted. "Scarlett always said that she wanted to be dipped in a bucket of puppies," Robin says. "That was literally her being dipped in a bucket of puppies.
In February 2016, at 5 years old, Scarlett was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She underwent treatment for a year, went into remission for eight months, and then relapsed. "Until just a few months before she died, you would not have known that she was sick at all," her mom says.
The Chwatkos had two rescue dogs when Scarlett was born, and after one passed away they got Ollie. "Ollie and Scarlett were best friends from day one," Robin says. "When we were gone for treatment all over the country, all she wanted was to get back to Ollie." Ollie was by Scarlett's side to her very last breath.
The Scarly Squad
After Scarlett came up with the concept for Draw for Paws during treatment, Robin bought her the domain name for the holidays that year and transformed her drawing into an official logo. They held their first business meeting at a Starbucks in their town.
"She literally gave us the map to her legacy."
When starting Draw for Paws, Robin asked Scarlett, "What if we get 1,000 orders?" Scarlett quickly responded, "Well then I'll do 1,000 orders." It wasn't a question for her. Toward the end of Scarlett's life, Robin asked, "If anyone else were to help you with this, who do you think would help you?" Scarlett immediately thought of her three best friends: Tate Shalov, Annabelle Fisher, and Grace Frieder.
When Scarlett passed, Robin held a meeting with the three of them. They called themselves the Scarly Squad and quickly committed to taking on Draw for Paws. "The Scarly Squad has grown and grown and grown," Robin says.
"For a kid to experience losing a child around their age is something that is just unthinkable and impossible to understand," she adds. "To have this outlet has been so therapeutic for them. It's a really happy thing rather than something that was so shocking and sad and traumatic."
All of the 75 artists from across the country who now contribute to Draw for Paws are members of the Scarly Squad. Robin is passionate about keeping Draw for Paws true to Scarlett. "It embodies her: her art, her humor, her friends, her love of animals, her caring and kind nature," she says.
The website is covered in her artwork, and to apply to be a Draw for Paws artist you must color in a bunny that Scarlett drew. "Every new bunny that comes in is something that they've collaborated with her on," she says.
Draw for Paws
Draw for Paws was officially registered as a nonprofit at the end of February 2020. To date, Robin says Draw for Paws has contributed around $60,000 to a variety of animal-focused causes.
Draw for Paws stays true to Scarlett's vision by gifting pet portraits to anyone who donates $20 to the Westchester SPCA. The Scarly Squad includes artists from ages 3 to 99. They are currently working with senior centers and assisted living facilities who have art classes to get their residents involved.
People are always overjoyed when they receive their drawing. Artists are randomly assigned to pets, so the drawings range from realistic to abstract. "In that scribble is that pet through a kid's eyes," Robin says. Some kids simply capture the sparkle in a pet's eyes, a waggy tail, or a giant tongue through their perspective.
Draw for Paws was even commissioned by the SPCA to draw portraits of Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest's pets. They gave the drawings to them as a gift.
You can find more charming pet portraits on the Draw for Paws/Scarly Squad Instagram page.
In October 2020, a little girl in Westchester asked Robin how they can help pets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without a clear answer, Robin surveyed animal shelters to find out about their specific needs. According to their local shelters, food insecurity has hit people hard during COVID. "For every story you hear about shelters being cleared because people are adopting more animals there's another family that has to give up their pet due to food insecurity," Robin says.
"We found that partnering with food pantries that serve humans was a better way to get the pet food directly to people who needed it," Robin says. They thought of the idea, now called Buddy Bowls, in October and first partnered with HOPE Community Services in November. They delivered 500 pounds of donated pet food to the food pantry, and it was all gone before Robin drove away.
"To know that we've prolonged the time that they can have with their animal and to know that they're asking for it the next time they come around, I feel like it's our responsibility," she says. Draw for Paws is already working to add a second food pantry partner for the program.
Draw for Paws also funds animal transports through Scarlett's Rainbow Rescue. They primarily work with the Homeward Bound Project of Mississippi, the transport program that Scarlett regularly volunteered with.
The Future of Draw for Paws
With Scarlett's vision and direction, the future of Draw for Paws is bright. They are already planning collaborations with well-known artists, online art classes, and initiatives to help senior shelter dogs.
"It's a cause that very few people won't support," Robin says. "We love our pets like family, so it's hard to disagree with the fact that we should be helping animals. The cause is also something that kids can be enthusiastic about and participate in on their own."
Robin dreams of having Draw for Paws all over the country to raise awareness for and aid in animal rescue and welfare. "We would love to partner with shelters, transports, and especially kids to join the Scarly Squad to move this into other cities," Robin says. Draw for Paws has the process down and has the capacity to replicate it in other cities.
"If you care about animals, we can get you involved," she says. "You can be any age, any skill level, any type of involvement. We can help you start Draw for Paws in your area, and we can get you involved wherever you are."