By the time Calli Vanderaa discovered the seven-week-old puppies in the garbage dumpster stationed behind her house, the fourth grader had spent two years soaking up ample evidence of society’s dark underbelly. She’d already seen more than most people witness in a lifetime.

The little girl was tossing away grass clippings with her dad last summer when they turned to walk away. She stopped in her tracks, ears instinctively tuned to the pleading cries coming from the big brown bin. The sounds were faint but unmistakably alive.

“I asked him, ‘Did you hear that?’”

“No,” he said.

“Well, come here.”

Her father Corey found a stool to boost himself up into the tall steel structure. Thankfully Calli stayed behind.

“He said I didn’t want to see what was inside there,” she told me.

The incident of cruelty made an impression on Calli. Last month, she wrote a letter to her local newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press, detailing what had happened. A poem she had composed was also enclosed.

Dear Sir
My name is Calli Vanderaa.
I’m 9 years old and I live with my daddy.
One day we found a little puppy in the BFI bin in our lane. Somebody had put 3 puppies in there and set them on fire.
Two of the puppies died but daddy and I saved one that was sitting in the corner crying.
We took her home and named her Jessie. She is happy and growing bigger every day.

Besides loving animals, I have a couple of things in common with Calli.

I spent my childhood living in and around Winnipeg, Manitoba, a Canadian prairie city known for its bitterly cold winters and warm, friendly people.

And for three years, I worked at the Free Press, the newspaper Calli addressed her letter to. It’s where I held my first full-time reporting job after graduating from journalism school. It was a former Free Press colleague and writer friend who was kind enough to share Calli’s story with me.

But the similarities between my life and Calli’s seemed to end with the geography we shared as children.

A child of economic privilege, I grew up in nice homes nestled in safe neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, Calli lives in Ground Zero of Winnipeg’s war zone, the most squalid section of the notorious North End. It’s the kind of place that people drive through and automatically reach over to lock their car doors. Solvent abuse, alcoholism, drug dealing and gang violence run rampant, ruling the streets. Poverty is a given.

A series of setbacks caused Calli’s 34-year-old single father Corey to move from a respectable suburban neighbourhood to the more affordable but dangerous inner city. It all began with Calli’s mother moving to the United States and leaving her 18-month-old daughter behind. Even in the North End, Corey struggles to meet financial obligations. He’s employed as a long-haul truck driver and clears snow part time to pay the bills. He agonizes about not spending enough time with his daughter.

Circumstances would be even tougher if it weren’t for Corey’s mother, Betty. The 76-year-old drives over from sleepy St. Vital six days a week to watch over her granddaughter while her son works.

Animals aren’t the only victims of the grinding despair in Calli’s neighbourhood. Last year, six of the city’s drug- or gang-related slayings happened within a two-street radius of her house. Once, a dead body turned up in her backyard. A crack house a couple of doors down used to blight the street — until it was firebombed.

Calli has been victimized, too. Now attending Grade 4, she had to change schools when she first moved to the area as a Grade 2 student. The skinny, pretty and perky Caucasian girl stuck out as a moving target, and got into three fights in short order. One was sparked by a boy in Grade 5 calling her a “f—— white bitch.”

A few months ago, a 13-year-old boy with a pellet gun shot Calli in the left shoulder blade as she walked home from school.

“Now I take Judo. It’s for my own protection,” she said.

Despite what she’s survived, it isn’t Calli’s personal plight that upsets her. She remains deeply troubled by what happened to the puppies in the garbage bin that day. Her face clouded over when we spoke about it.

“I just can’t believe someone could do something like that,” Calli said. “She had green gum up her bum. My dad had to take it out.”

The shy puppy was frightened at first, but quickly realized that she was in gentle, safe company at the Vanderaa household.

“She was really scared, but within an hour she was calmer,” Calli said. Initially she believed the soot-coated pup hiding under the coffee table had black fur until a bath in the kitchen sink revealed her true color.

“She turned golden brown. It was magic.”

Jessie quickly became part of the family.

“She gets so excited when my dad comes home that she pees in the house,” Calli said.

I asked her what she would tell the person who did this to Jessie and her littermates if she had the chance.

“I really don’t know,” she started. Then, after a pause, she finished her thought with resolve: “I would actually have nothing to say to them at all.”

Calli’s Christmas list for this year had four things on it, topped by an Avril Lavigne poster. But in the face of the family’s financial strain, Calli changed her mind about her list and took it down last week. With her father on the road six days a week, and Sundays being their only full day together, there’s one gift that matters most to her.

“I don’t want anything for Christmas. I only want to spend time with my daddy. He’s a good daddy because I’m not spoiled.”

She’s also thinking about her pup Jessie, and what she needs for Christmas. The five-month-old dog can go into heat any day now, and Calli is wise enough to understand the importance of stopping the endless cycle of overpopulation. Wiser than many adults I encounter, in fact. But the procedure costs $140. It’s money the family doesn’t have.

When readers of Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair Jr. saw Calli’s story in the December 13th edition of the paper, they spontaneously stepped up to help.

People wrote that they planned to buy gifts for this family instead of themselves. They pledged cash and gift certificates. Dog food and toys. Relief babysitting for Grandma Betty that included Jessie in the deal. Even Habitat for Humanity emailed to say they could potentially help Corey purchase a house with affordable payments in a safer neighbourhood. One man was so touched that he offered to help Corey get a job at his workplace that might pay better and keep him closer to home and his daughter.

An award was promised for Calli, who will be nominated as a Humane Hero through the Winnipeg Humane Society.

One of the most important gifts pledged by three different people was for Jessie.

It’s the $140 the family doesn’t have to spay her.

It wasn’t as if Calli wasn’t trying to do right by her dog.

The junior animal rescuer was already saving small change in two coffee cans for the surgery. She understands that her efforts will help stop the cycle of death that her father had witnessed in the dumpster behind their house.

After meeting Calli and being impressed by what she’s already accomplished for this puppy, I had to ask: What does she want to be when she grows up?

“Being a teacher just sounds so cool,” she said, breaking into a big smile.

I was kind of hoping she’d say animal rescuer and writer.

But at least she’s already qualified for both.

And she hasn’t even turned 10.


“Here is my poem about my little friend,” Calli wrote to the Winnipeg Free Press in the letter she included along with this penciled ode to her dog, reprinted below.

My dog Jessie

I heard a little puppy crying
in a garbage bin
My daddy picked her out cause she was
scared and very thin.
we took her home and bathed her
then to our surprise she wasn’t
black but golden brown with big brown
puppy eyes. We took her to the doctor
and he said she’s doing fine
how can people be so cruel
Why can’t they just be kind?

Calli Vanderaa (right) with friend Sabannah Cadotte, and Jessie, the puppy she rescued. Photograph courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press and Boris Minkevich.


If you have questions about Calli and Jessie or feel driven to help, email me at