Compassion Without Borders founder Christi Camblor wins North Bay Spirit Award

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The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Christi Camblor found her life’s mission during a rainstorm in Mexico City, surrounded by 2,000 warehoused dogs and the oppressive stench that comes with too many animals confined to one place.

A dog she particularly loved at the huge animal control center where her volunteer work had crossed into a seven-day-a-week commitment had recently died in a fight of the sort that erupts from time to time among overcrowded street dogs.

Another favorite, a terrier mix called Chacha, lay dying in a nearby cage, fated to succumb to an illness that might never be diagnosed.

As Camblor, then 26, sat on the floor contemplating the wretched prospects of the hundreds of other dogs she watched seeking cover from the rain in an open-air part of the facility, she was overcome by the enormity of the problem and the intensity of the suffering she encountered every day.

Starving dogs with chronic diseases, often with injuries or open wounds, or covered with mange, wandered the streets, and even those taken into shelter had almost no hope of a decent future.

“What could anybody do, and what actually could I do?” Camblor remembers pondering on that especially dark day. “I felt very defeated.”

She said she hardly knew what she had in mind as she dragged herself to her feet, took Chacha from her cage and headed for the shelter door. In a daze, she boarded a bus, and then a subway, and made her way to the office of a veterinarian she knew who hospitalized the pup for a bacterial disease called leptospirosis, which would require weeks to treat.

While Chacha convalesced, Camblor sent the dog’s photo to contacts back in California. She eventually found a friend who would provide the first and final home the dog would ever have — for the next 12 years.

“I just thought to myself, ‘If I can get this one dog out of here, I’m going to do it,’ ” Camblor says now. “I just couldn’t stand to watch her die, so it’s what got me off the floor. It was just the desire to do something, and she was the animal right in front of me.”

That’s how it started — one dog, one home — very much like the motto now printed on T-shirts and the rescue van used by the Santa Rosa-headquartered nonprofit that Camblor leads: “Rescue. Rehome. Repeat.”

Compassion Without Borders has now successfully found permanent homes for 5,530 homeless, abandoned and neglected dogs — all of them vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and treated for health conditions before placement, some of them quite serious.

It is, Camblor concedes, “really hard work, for sure, and it is often sad and heartbreaking, but it is so rewarding.”

Camblor, the agency’s director and co-founder, is this month’s North Bay Spirit Award honoree, recognized for providing veterinary care, spay/neuter services and rescue to more than 31,000 animals, mostly dogs, in underserved communities on both sides of the border, including many in Sonoma County, over the past 18 years.

The award, launched earlier this year, is a joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, created to turn a spotlight on individuals who have come up with inventive solutions to community problems and who go all-in for a cause with a leadership style that inspires others to step up.

The North Bay Spirit Award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

The organization’s international rescue work is focused on removing dogs, particularly those that are injured and diseased, from the Sonoran City of Puerto Puñasco, located on the Gulf of California, about a 1¼-hour drive from the Arizona border.

But it rescues animals, as well, from overcrowded shelters in Central Valley communities like Fresno, where dogs are at high risk of euthanasia because there are simply too many to adopt out locally. Half of Compassion Without Border’s rescue dogs have been pulled from California shelters. In addition, the organization devotes significant resources to free and low-cost spay/neuter and wellness care clinics for local low-income and homeless communities in Sonoma County and in Mexico, as part of an effort to raise the quality of life for animals and their owners. The agency holds monthly free and low-cost clinic days using its mobile clinic in Roseland, as well as quarterly clinic days for homeless pet owners in Guerneville.

Camblor says she feels strongly that the cost of veterinary care should not be the determining factor in who gets to have a pet and who does not. Animals in a loving home should not have to leave just because their owners cannot afford medical care, she said.

Camblor concedes it would not be possible to serve the volume of patients they do nor provide the scope of care that Compassion Without Borders does without an in-house veterinarian. Her veterinary skills also mean CWOB can specialize in rescue and rehabilitation of particularly challenging medical cases — dogs with very severe injuries and disease. Complicated surgeries and treatments are sometimes needed to repair broken hips and other fractures or to provide intensive wound care that Camblor sometimes provides at her home.

Walking past the pens and the organization’s 2½-year-old office/treatment center and shelter in southwest Santa Rosa, Camblor ticks off the various conditions of the dogs she has treated. One, a little guy named Wiley, is missing half of his lower jaw bone after it was found fractured and flapping below his mouth, and had to be removed. Another, Terry, had lost part of its face. Miguel had leather gloves duct-taped to his back feet when found and deep infection gangrene had set in.

“We take the really broken animals that most shelters couldn’t take the time and money to care for,” Camblor said.

Compassion Without Borders may as well have been born with Chacha’s 2001 rescue, though its roots lie in Camblor’s love of all living creatures and her lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian.

But Camblor’s many admirers say it is her generosity of spirit and skill with people that elevates her work, allowing her to see others without judgment and to handle even the most difficult situations with understanding and respect — whether it’s trying to extract a dog from an abusive setting or persuading “some macho guy” to part with his pitbull’s gonads.

“Honestly, I’ve never met anybody like her,” said Lynn Bowers, a volunteer for the last nine years. “She’s the epitome of grace, tact and diplomacy, and compassion, of course.”

Don Conkling, a San Bruno veterinarian who serves on the CWOB board of directors and has worked side by side with Camblor in Santa Rosa and at the organization’s operational hub across the Mexico border in Puerto Peñasco, concurred. He recalled Camblor’s deft handling of an outside rescue group in Sonora that was putting unvaccinated puppies at risk by sheltering them with potentially contagious adults. Rather than confront them in a way that come across as scolding or humiliating, she invited them to tea and conversation, and gently educated them about best practices.

“She’s incredible,” said Conkling, 67. “I wish I could be like her.”

Camblor, 43, had grown up volunteering at a local animal hospital and was the first in her family to go to college. She was on a break between undergraduate work and veterinary school at UC Davis, when an extended sojourn in Mexico found her volunteering at the enormous animal control center where she came to understand the potential of one dog, one home — the mission that drives her still.

It was also there that she met her future husband, Juan “Moncho” Camblor, whose initial eligibility as a partner was established, he contends, by correctly answering two essential questions: Do you have dogs? And, where do they sleep? (“ ‘My bed, of course,’ was the right answer.”)

Moncho Camblor was the reason Christi Camblor found herself at Refugio Franciscano with Chacha (he knew a vet who worked there) and he would become her co-founder at Compassion Without Borders. Moncho Camblor now does design and marketing for the nonprofit. The couple’s 9-year-old son, Diego, is integrally involved as well.

Starting with monthly runs through which Christi Camblor would bring 15 or 20 dogs north from Mexico for quarantine at the Northern California farm animal sanctuary where she’d lived and worked while an undergraduate student, the mission evolved over the years that Christi Camblor attended veterinary school and then served as a staff veterinarian with the Humane Society of Sonoma County, from 2007 to 2017.

The couple had long since moved to Sonoma County and worked as volunteers for Compassion Without Borders that whole time, gradually building it from a shoestring operation into something more substantial. Two years ago, the board persuaded both Camblors to take a salary so they are now paid for work they already were doing, Conkling said.

In a pivotal development, the organization has acquired the 3½ acre property off Butler Avenue that had been used as a for-profit animal shelter and now serves as headquarters for Compassion Without Borders and Muttopia, a shelter jointly operated by CWOB and its longtime partner, the Center for Animal Protection, or CAPE, which actually received the bequest that made the purchase possible. Having the shelter means the dogs she cares for can recover medically and emotionally before they are adopted.

Camblor has a room for routine veterinary treatment on Butler Avenue, but still uses the facilities at the Humane Society on weekends for major surgeries. The rescue van heads south to Mexico every two to three months, returning with up to 60, mostly small dogs.

Their arrival, said Bowers, is glorious, because when the doors are thrown open you know the animals inside have had their “last bad day.”

“Welcome to the beautiful life,” she said she always thinks, “because it’s like a lottery land, and you hit the jackpot.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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