Bluffton dog park group moving past embezzlement scandal

rlurye@islandpacket.comOctober 12, 2013 

Spiritual Communications Consultant Sheila King Ashe, of Hilton Head Island, uses tarot cards to read the fortune of Digby the dog, held by owner Bill DeVries of Bluffton, during The Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks annual Bark in the Park fundraiser on Saturday at the Calhoun Street Promenade. "I know he needs to change his treats," she said of Digby, who she pronounced otherwise fine.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr Buy Photo

With a dignified hop, a standard poodle cleared a short, yellow bar set up in the Calhoun Street Promenade.

A few feet away, a woman toting a pit bull raised her eyebrows but forged ahead, imploring the dog to leap over the obstacle, part of an agility course situated at the far end of Saturday's Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks fundraiser, the Bark in the Park.

Instead, with her eyes and ears perking in every direction, the dog promptly knocked it over. Surrounded by dozens of animals, petting hands, booths and food vendors at the dog park group's largest event yet, there were simply too many sights and smells to care about a short, yellow bar.

That array of activities and booths, from a doggie psychic and adoptable pets to gourmet coffee and a silent auction, Saturday's large showing was strategic.

Just three months after an embezzlement scandal devastated the group's progress toward building a 1.53-acre dog park in Buckwalter Regional Park, the board has recouped much of its losses, said president Cheryl Raugh.

"We had to dig out of the hole and plan this event at the same time," she said. "Everybody just rose to the challenge."

Former board president William Grooms was arrested June 11 on charges of stealing more than $10,000 from the group, and as much as $19,000, members said. Grooms committed suicide in July.

His wife, Amanda Mitchell-Grooms, was indicted in September on a charge of accessory after the fact. Her case has yet to go to trial.

Shortly after the theft, Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks started fresh with a new board and a new brand, courtesy of a $3,500 graphic design overhaul donated by Morning Sock Studios. Raugh said the group will not know until Sunday how much the Bark in the Park brought in, but her board has raised about $10,000 so far, including some of the fees vendors paid to participate Saturday.

"It's tough to recover from something like that," said Doug Fletcher, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head Island. Fletcher was attending Bark in the Park with his therapy dog Micah.

"But there's a huge numbers of pets; it seems like it's growing and growing. For here, a dog park would be a great thing."

Going forward, Raugh said the board and volunteers will begin working toward bigger corporate sponsors, writing grant applications and reassessing the costs of the park, which she plans to complete within a year.

Previously, the group estimated it would cost $40,000, but Raugh said the figure will likely by close to $50,000. About half that pricetag will go toward fencing the park and separate spaces for small dogs, large dogs and a special event area. Several items have already been donated, including water fountains and a front entrance sign, Raugh said.

There's no question the next annual fundraiser will take place at Buckwalter, said Sheila King Ashe, a Hilton Head Island animal communicator offering readings to people and their pets.

"It's a definite," she said, shortly after holding the fuzzy paws of a fidgeting Cairn Terrier. "I think the rebuilding is going beautifully."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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