About Us

Friends of the Shelter

In the beginning

Orphans of the Storm Animal Shelter was founded in 1928 by the world-renowned dancer, actor, and entrepreneur Irene Castle and her friend Helen Swift. Irene named Orphans of the Storm after her favorite silent movie by the same name, in which two orphaned sisters are reunited. It was Irene’s hope to provide a happy ending to lost and abandoned dogs and cats in the Chicago area.

Irene Castle and her first husband, Vernon, were famous ballroom dancers portrayed in the movie The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  After Vernon passed, Irene married Major Frederick McLaughlin, founder of the Chicago Blackhawks. They settled in Lake Forest, and Irene found an abandoned kennel in nearby Riverwoods, the site of what would become Orphans of the Storm.

Orphans of the Storm is conveniently nestled between the North Shore communities of Deerfield and Buffalo Grove on nine acres, just 1.5 miles off I-94. The buildings include three dog wings with outdoor access, cat housing, office space, and a small clinic. Outdoor facilities include numerous kennel runs, dog meet-and-greet spaces, the Jim Farmer Memorial Dog Enrichment Park, and a wooded nature trail. It is a beacon of hope for stray and abandoned cats and dogs in Northeastern Illinois and beyond and has found loving homes for nearly 150,000 pets. With the help of dedicated staff and volunteers, Orphans of the Storm takes responsibility for every orphaned, abandoned, abused, or neglected cat or dog who reaches its doors, providing the best medical and physical care possible and placing them into loving, adoptive homes.

A change in leadership

After Irene Castle’s passing in 1969, the shelter’s board sought a successor to continue its mission. Thelma Zwirner, a dedicated animal welfare advocate, stepped forward to lead Orphans of the Storm. Thelma had a long history of working for animal welfare causes, including founding and running a clearinghouse for lost pets and serving as the President of the Westchester County Humane Society.

Under Thelma Zwirner’s leadership, the shelter expanded significantly, accommodating more dogs and providing indoor and outdoor runs. By the time of her death in 1994, Orphans of the Storm had become one of the largest animal shelters in the country.


Richard Zwirner, Thelma’s son, took over the shelter’s leadership in 1994 after serving on its board for 25 years. Richard continued to build on the shelter’s founding mission, including adding a large cat room and beautiful wooded nature trail, which provides a peaceful reprieve for dogs, shelter dog walkers, and potential adopters.

Today, Donna Heggie serves as the Volunteer President, overseeing our lifesaving legacy begun over 95 years ago. Donna is excited to move the shelter forward with plans to make Orphans a community resource for pet adoption and preserve the bond between people and their pets.

We have had a long and impactful history, touching the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals and the people who love them. We welcome your support.