LIVINGSTON, NJ — Since her father’s death two years ago, local 16-year-old Heather McGuire has dedicated her time to “turning tragedies into triumphs” by giving back to the community alongside her certified therapy dog, Bella. 

Only a week after losing her father to a heart attack after he had been battling Stage IV cancer for nearly a year, Heather also lost her 17-year-old chocolate lab. Instead turning to isolation, anger and bitterness, Heather and her mother, Nicole, a Livingston High School alumna, adopted a Golden Retriever puppy, named her Bella, and had her certified as a therapy dog in order to bring joy to others in pain. 

“Heather is all about making the world a better place through her volunteer work,” said Nicole. “She knows how the dogs that came into visit her father brought him great joy and she wants to pass this along to others.”

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Since becoming certified in August of 2016, Bella and Heather have been volunteering at Inglemoor Rehabilitation & Care Center in Livingston, and are currently working with Scott Bradley of Bradley & Son Funeral Homes with the hopes of soon bringing Bella in to assist other grieving families in need of additional emotional support. Heather is also beginning to apply for volunteer work at local hospitals now that she is of age to do so.

Margaret Brown, director of activities at Inglemoor, said Heather and Bella are a wonderful addition to the Activities Department.

“Everyone looks forward to Thursday afternoons to love on that pup,” she said. “Heather has done an amazing job in training her, caring for her, and keeping her wardrobe updated week to week. Pet therapy is a regular activity offered at Inglemoor, and we are lucky to have such a great team engaging our residents."

After seeing the joy the therapy dogs brought to the patients while her father was ill, Heather said she knew she had to do this with her own dog. According to Nicole, Bella tends to gravitate toward visiting families, who often seem to need Bella just as much as their loved ones do.

“A lot of them say they really needed this right now, and the smile that’s always on their face makes me feel happy,” said Heather. “A lot of the elders say they love seeing Bella and they get really excited when she [is on the schedule].”

Heather is a 10th grader at The Calais School, a state-approved provider of special education for students with special needs, located in Whippany.

Apart from her adventures with Bella, Heather also volunteers at the Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Chatham. She has also attended Camp Clover, a four-day therapeutic camp through Atlantic Health Care's HOSPICE, for the past two years and has been asked to come back next year as a counselor to help other children cope with grieving and loss.

Two years after Bill McGuire’s death in 2015, the family continues to participate in Relay For Life, a nationwide, 24-hour walk/run event that honors cancer survivors, remembers loved ones lost and fights back against cancer.

Heather and Nicole also work closely with Imagine New Jersey, a center for coping with loss that Nicole said helped them transform their grief into healing. Imagine’s goal is to “create communities where grief and loss are transformed into resilience, empathy and compassion; and create communities where no child grieves alone,” according to its website.

“We’ve learned a lot through them of how to deal with the loss of Bill, through my perspective as his wife and Heather’s as a child,” said Nicole. “One of the things is always wanting to give back and still do Relay for Life because we did it that year for Bill, but we’ve changed the team’s name to ‘The Dream Team’ because we dream of a world without cancer.

“After Bill passed away, we felt like there had to be a reason for all of this and we have to find the good in something so tragic that happened to us. We needed to give it some meaning, and what we learned is that other people are out there that need the support and the help and to have an uplifting day.”