Sometimes life challenges us to redefine our adversities.
On June 17, 2011, Romeo Santos turned his greatest loss into a gift that continues to inspire others. For Romeo, it was the day his best friend from high school and wife of six years, Tracy Santos, succumbed to cancer.
In her honor, Romeo heads Tracy’s Bark Brigade, one of the leading supporters of the Maryland SPCA’s March for the Animals. A pack originally formed in 2006 by Tracy and her co-workers at Eastern Animal Hospital, the Bark Brigade has consistently increased its annual fundraising efforts, hitting its $50,000 fundraising milestone last March. The event, this year on Sunday, April 27, features a 1.5 mile walk (for two and four legged participants) as well as a showcase of adoptable dogs, training tips, vendors and a pet costume contest.
The pack’s name, Tracy’s Bark Brigade, captures Tracy’s life-long love of animals and Romeo’s involvement in the army. It is also a symbol of the Santos’s unique story.
Romeo and Tracy attended Poly High School together until Romeo dropped out to join the army. They temporarily lost touch until their friendship was re-kindled during a leave, at which time Tracy confessed she was “always in love” with him. Romeo was dumbfounded. “I had no clue…I was just a poor kid from Pigtown…a high school drop-out.”
Shortly after their reunion, Romeo was deployed to Kuwait as part of Iraqi Free. On his next leave, they married in a Baltimore courthouse. It was not until 2007 that they properly celebrated their marriage.
Romeo joked that their marriage was the union between “a poor girl from Canton and…a poor kid from Pigtown.” He had low expectations for their 2007 wedding reception. He expected Tracy to economize and pile three Safeway sheet cakes together for their wedding cake. Instead, in true Tracy fashion, she ordered a real wedding cake with crabs on the top. As an added touch, she named each table for a Baltimore neighborhood.
From the time she was six years old, Tracy loved animals, often rescuing stray cats in her neighborhood. When Romeo left for Kuwait, Tracy had two cats. When he returned a year later, her brood had grown to three cats and two dogs. He muses, “I could never say no.”
Her love of animals and desire to rescue them made the SPCA a natural fit for Tracy. Before her death, she was an avid volunteer there, as well as at Eastern Animal Hospital. She was first drawn to the March with the Animals as an individual donor, raising over $300 her first year.
“The hard part is the asking part. I already know it’s a no…the only other answer can be yes,” she used to say.
In the next two years, Tracy’s yeses increased, inspiring her to form, in 2007, her own pack and set an ambitious fundraising goal of $6,000. Coincidentally, it was the same year she discovered a lump in her breast. By the end of 2007, at the age of 26, she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. By then, the cancer had metasticized to her bones and liver. The Santos’s plans — for Romeo to return to active duty, for Tracy to enroll in school, and for the two of them to start a family — would be put on hold.
Despite her prognosis, Tracy remained a steadfast SPCA volunteer, refusing to “let her cancer define her.” Romeo insists, Tracy wanted to be remembered not as a young woman with cancer but rather, as “a young woman who loved animals.”
In 2008, just months following her diagnosis, Tracy made her wishes a reality by exceeding all her fundraising goals and forever defining herself as an animal lover and an SPCA supporter. As a result, they renamed her pack Tracy’s Bark Brigade.
While Tracy ultimately became too sick to walk in the 2010 and 2011 March for the Animals, her pack increased its fundraising efforts each year. Tracy also set annual fundraising goals for the pack, believing the goals were something to strive toward, not necessarily reach.
She reasoned if the pack reached its goal, it could have done better.
Today, Romeo continues to preach the same sentiment. Upon her death in 2011, Romeo took over the pack and in the next two years, climbed toward the $50,000 milestone. This year, he has set its goal at $15,001 as a challenge to the SPCA Board’s own goal of $15,000. He even baits his challengers with smaller increments to push them to donate more.
He quips, “It’s not about being the top team. [It’s about] being actively engaged to help the shelter.”
While Romeo has found the most effective way to raise funds for Tracy’s Bark Brigade is through direct donation, he helps sponsor two events to benefit the cause. With the help of Tracy’s longtime friend, Carrie, the Laughing Pint in Highlandtown will host a Happy Hour April 9th featuring animal-themed drinks. One hundred percent of the sale of the drinks will benefit the SPCA.
Romeo is also a die-hard Orioles fan. He jokes that his other incentive for pushing the pack is to earn the Orioles box seats awarded to the top fundraisers. On April 12, he will participate in the Orioles’ High Five Program, which donates five dollars of every $13 ticket sale to the April 12th 7pm game against the Blue Jays to the SPCA.
In the years since he lost his wife and lifelong friend, Romeo has dedicated himself to the cause closest to Tracy’s heart. His enthusiasm for helping homeless animals matches the zeal Tracy showed in starting her fundraising crusade. Like Tracy, Romeo believes in the SPCA mission and realizes its importance in his hometown. “I want to be a part of this,” he says.
Reflecting on the few years he and Tracy shared before her untimely death at age 30, Romeo still grieves, but the cause he has undertaken is “for me too.”
“It’s not a matter of giving up or moving on…I am learning to live with my loss…and [helping to] inspire others,” he says.
Tami Grosheff remarks that together, the Santos’s have, indeed, inspired others and “their fundraising efforts…are truly making a difference in the lives of the 3,000 pets we find homes for each year.”
The proceeds from the event provide care, shelter, food, spay and neutering procedures and medication for pets in the adoption center. Supporters register as individuals or in packs (a team of 4-25 members). For more information about the March of the Animals, visit mdspca.org
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