The life of a young woman who served the community and cared for its animals will be honored during a ceremony Thursday at the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society, where a new radiology suite will be dedicated in Stephanie Snow's name. 

Thanks to fundraising efforts spearheaded by the Snow family and community members, the Humane Society was able to purchase a $73,000 X-ray machine that also will be utilized by Santa Barbara County Animal Services. Neither organization has X-ray equipment in its veterinary departments, which means that when sick or injured animals arrive and need X-rays, those services must be purchased from veterinarians at private practices.

Finding a private clinic willing and able to provide X-ray services is difficult and, in an emergency, the delay can be life-threatening, according to Santa Maria Valley Humane Society director Sean Hawkins.

The new Stephanie Snow Radiology Suite will enable both shelters to better diagnose animals in a timely manner, and will honor her memory as a champion for taking care of orphaned and injured animals during her time as a volunteer.

A life of service

Stephanie -- a lifelong resident of the Santa Maria Valley -- fought a public battle with a rare, debilitating bone disease after she joined 700 other people worldwide when she was diagnosed with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) at the age of 3. 

The disorder causes soft tissues to transform permanently into bone, immobilizing the joints of the body, and leading most patients to become bedridden by the time they are 30. 

Since her diagnosis in 1994, Stephanie's parents, Jennifer and Bob Snow, advocated for efforts to find a cure, supporting fundraising events and research primarily led by Dr. Frederick Kaplan and his team at University of Pennsylvania. Under Jennifer's lead, community members were inspired and supported the fundraising effort for over 16 years, raising more than $1 million. 

Despite her medical condition, Stephanie lived a full life and was involved in activities ranging from youth football cheerleading to 4-H and FFA. She later took care of abandoned kittens, and fostered orphaned and injured animals. 

Stephanie died Jan. 2 at the age of 26. The community celebrated her life in a memorial service at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge on Jan. 21. 

"Through Stephanie's courage and grace, she was able to spread awareness, raise funds and be a part of the research efforts for FOP, which took our daughter's life. We believe that helping pets heal is the best way we can remember her," said Stephanie's mother, Jennifer Snow, in a statement.

Dedication campaign

After her death, Stephanie's family visited the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society in an effort to find a way to honor her daughter and love for animals. There, they met with Hawkins, who had never met Stephanie but learned about her close connections with her community and animals. 

"When I first met Bob and Jennifer, I was overwhelmed and inspired by the person Stephanie really, truly was in the community, and I was too happy to figure out with them what might be the best way to honor Stephanie at the shelter that she loved to be at," Hawkins said. 

As they talked, both Hawkins and the Snow family realized the shelter facility didn't have an X-ray machine, "and that's when the lights went off in all of our heads," Hawkins said. 

"Her parents said, 'Oh gosh, this is perfect,' and Jennifer said to me that so much of Stephanie's medical journey, examinations and such were tied to X-ray [scans]," he explained. 

Quickly, fundraising plans were formed, and the family determined to raise $73,000 for a radiology system for the Humane Society. Ultimately, the campaign exceeded that goal and brought in a total of $75,000, allowing the staff to purchase lead goggles and aprons, in addition to the X-ray system.

The Snow family raised more than half of the amount from their own network of friends and colleagues they met through Stephanie's medical journey and their efforts to support FOP research.

Jim Glines, chairman of the Community Bank of Santa Maria, said the bank also set up an account for the Snow family's fundraising efforts, opening it to public donations.

"I was so touched by the amount people brought in for Stephanie's memory," said Glines, who recalled meeting Stephanie when she was a young 4-H member at the Santa Barbara County Fair. Glines was the live auctioneer who sold Stephanie's lamb.

"Stephanie was a trooper. She never complained, never felt sorry for herself and was a real game-changer," Glines said. "I got to know her and her family during their FOP fundraisers and developed lifetime friendships."

The principal $28,000 was raised dollar by dollar from small gifts contributed online and in person. The rest came from community members Dan and Peggy Blough, who donated $20,000, and an anonymous family that contributed $15,000. The last $10,000 of the fundraising campaign was contributed by the Paul Porpiglia Family Trust. 

Coming full circle

The Snow family hit their fundraising goal in June, but the story didn't stop there, according to Hawkins.

"Paul Porpiglia and his family set up a campaign in memory of his mother, Rosemary, who passed away in 2014, and wanted to do something to honor her," Hawkins said. "Paul told me how much his mother loved cats, and I told him about the Stephanie Snow radiology suite campaign, and he was [only] too happy to join.

"I told the Snow family about the Porpiglia family, and Jennifer remembered Rosemary right away and was shocked," Hawkins said.

Rosemary previously met Stephanie during an FOP fundraiser, where they both shared their love for animals, especially cats, Porpiglia said. 

Porpiglia's mother helped Stephanie with her fundraising efforts during her battle with FOP, and after her death, was able to help Stephanie carry on her legacy by making it possible to purchase the X-ray machine in Stephanie's name.

"The Snow family also echoed this sentiment, and how the stars aligned to bring our families together again," Porpiglia said. "I'd like to think that interaction all those years ago between one cat girl and another created a bond that allows them to look down upon us all the day of the dedication with pride and happiness."

Hawkins added: "This amazing story of love and community really comes to a full circle. It's a fascinating tale that only happens in a town like Santa Maria, the little town that cares." 

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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