About Us

Friends of the Shelter

In the beginning

It was a crisp fall day in October of 1928 when Irene Castle and her friend Helen Swift were scouting around Lake County and discovered the perfect site for their country refuge. There existed a tiny old kennel that would need work, but once done could serve their purpose well.

The idea was a simple one. We were going to found a refuge for stray dogs, the mongrels that nobody wanted. We would bathe them, cure them, and make them available for adoption, making very sure they went only to good homes where they would be appreciated.

“But what will you call it?” Helen asked.

Irene thought for only a minute and remembered an old play that the Gish sisters had starred in. The name of the play was perfect for their purposes. “I’ll call it Orphans of the Storm.” Irene replied.

And so it was. And since that day, the shelter has grown and changed, but the life-saving mission has remained constant.

How it all started

Irene Castle and her first husband Vernon became famous around the world as fashion and dance trendsetters before and during the First World War. They were later portrayed in the 1939 Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire movie, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. In 1928, with the help of her third husband, Major Frederick McLaughlin (founder of the Chicago Blackhawks), Irene was able to build the original Orphans of the Storm animal shelter. Founding Orphans of the Storm with the mission that needy animals deserve a place to find loving homes, Irene lent her name and support to the shelter until her death in 1969. At that time, the shelter’s board searched for a successor in order to avoid closure. Luckily for generations of adopted dogs and cats, Thelma Zwirner stepped forward to fill the role.

How it all started

Thelma Zwirner had a long history of animal welfare work. A life long dog lover, she started during the Great Depression raising German Shepherds to help her family make ends meet, and she became aware of the scope of the problem of unwanted dogs and cats in interurban areas. She lobbied for humane legislation in the 1940s and 1950s in her native New York State and founded and ran a clearing house for the recovery of lost pets. She became active in animal shelter work and ultimately became President of the Westchester County Humane Society in the north suburbs of New York City. She continued her work with Kay’s Animal Shelter in Arlington Heights, Illinois throughout the 1960s. Thelma Zwirner agreed to lead Orphans of the Storm after she was contacted following the death of Irene Castle in 1969.

A strong leader and dedicated visionary for the welfare of the animals entrusted to Orphans care, Thelma Zwirner oversaw the expansion of the shelter from maintaining 46 dogs indoors only to maintaining 190 dogs with indoor and outdoor combined runs. By the time of her death in 1994, Orphans of the Storm had become one of the largest animal shelters in the country, built on the vision that no needy animal would ever be turned away.

A modern shelter

Shaped for the future

Thelma Zwirner’s son Richard assumed the leadership in 1994 after serving for 25 years on its board of directors. Richard Zwirner has built on Orphans’ founding mission in his years as President by helping to prepare Orphans of the Storm for the future. With the large number of area households with two working adults, Richard emphasized cat adoptions and sought to expand the facilities to include a separate building dedicated to cats. In this building is our well-respected adult cat room where approximately 200 cats live together freely awaiting adoptive homes. Today, Orphans has more than 300 cats ready for adoption. Richard’s experience with Orphans, coupled with his business background, has enabled him to expand and strengthen Orphans’ position as a leading institution for stray and abandoned animals throughout Northeastern Illinois.

In recent years, Orphans has begun to increase its visibility in order to stimulate adoptions and increase fundraising in the area. Through expanded mailings, an on-line presence with an up-to-date website and social media sites, and increased local media coverage for the shelter, Orphans of the Storm’s brand awareness has been extended.

Richard has overseen many investments in the facility and grounds while managing to keep the operational costs of Orphans of the Storm efficiently low. With goals of increasing adoptions further, expanding Orphans’ educational role about the animal overpopulation problem, and creating a capital campaign for the facilities, Richard Zwirner has positioned Orphans of the Storm for a strong future.

We hope that you too can become a part of Orphans of the Storm’s future. We have had a long and caring history and have touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals and their adoptive owners throughout Northeastern Illinois and beyond. We welcome your support.