Starting Over

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Carol Gardner was over a million dollars in debt from a failed real estate venture. 

She was 52 years old, divorced, and heartbroken.  She had no job, no income, and no prospects.  “My attorney just shook her head and said, ‘You need to get a therapist or get a dog.’” 

So she got a dog. 

Carol responded to an ad for Zelda, a four-month-old saggy-faced bulldog.  “As soon as I walked in, her face was just a mirror image of how I felt in my heart.  She needed love and I needed love.”  What they both really needed was a way to put food on the table and chow in the puppy dish.

Carol heard that a local pet store was sponsoring a Christmas card contest.  First prize was 40 pounds of puppy chow a month for one year.  “OK, Zelda, you get 20 pounds and I get 20 pounds, and with ketchup maybe it’s not too bad.”

She put Zelda into a bubble bath and fashioned a “beard” around her canine friend’s face.  Then she put a Santa cap on her head and took a picture.  Underneath she wrote this caption:  “For Christmas, I got a dog for my husband…good trade, huh?”  She won the contest.  That meant almost 500 pounds of dog food for the coming year.  Not only that, she now had a funny Christmas card to share with her friends. 

They loved it.  And that gave Gardner an idea.

Drawing on her background in marketing, she invited a highly regarded photographer to come to her house.  “You mean you’re dressing up your dog, you want me to come over and take pictures, and you can’t pay me?”  Yes, that was the long and the short of it.  “Trust me,” she pleaded.

Carol ended up with 24 images featuring Zelda in absurd outfits, each accompanied by a zinger or heart-touching caption.  A printer extended 90 days of credit.  When Hallmark jumped on board, the Zelda Wisdom line of greeting cards was born.  Six months later Carol sold her millionth card.  

Today the Zelda line is Hallmark’s #1 seller.  There are more than a dozen Zelda Wisdom books, multiple children’s stories, almost a thousand different greeting cards, and annual revenue for Carol and Zelda that exceeds five million dollars. 

Zelda is also involved in a partnership with the American Humane Association concerning its Children’s Hospital Initiative.  The program’s goal is to locate, train, and provide rescue dogs that will serve as around-the-clock therapy companions in all of America’s children’s hospitals.

“I like to call this hug, hold, and heal with the dogs,” Carol says.  “Doing these things with the dogs reduces the kids’ fear factor.”

Carol has been incredibly blessed.  But not just for her own sake.  She knows she has been blessed to be a blessing.  “Giving back is the true sign of success,” she says.  “When Zelda can help someone start their day with a smile, we know we’re doing something right.”  Now 72 years old, she resonates with the slogan a media personality assigned to her earlier this summer:  “72 and still not through.”  She’s currently launching another not-for-profit that will introduce kids to the healing power of pets.   

It’s never too late to start over. 

And it’s never too late for an all-about-me life to become focused on others. 

It’s startling how many Bible characters seem to be heading in one direction – or heading into a ditch – only to execute a major U-turn.  Job loses everything, only to have God rebuild his world.  Peter utterly fails his Master, who then restores him to ministry leadership.  Gideon settles for second (or third) best, at which point God recruits him to rescue Israel.  Joseph sees his dreams dashed and winds up in an Egyptian prison, whereupon he rises to a position of power that will allow him to bless the very family members who betrayed him.  Paul’s life is all about hunting down Christians, until a vision from heaven transforms him into a Christian par excellence.  Moses is exiled in the Sinai wilderness and has been old enough to get the KFC senior discount for 20 years, but God picks him to be his front man in delivering the Hebrews from slavery. 

You’re not too old, too weak, or too broken. 

And it’s not too late.

Now that you’re at this place, what is God calling you to do?

Carol Gardner is pretty sure she knows what Zelda would say:

Think outside your cage.