12/29/2009 at 04:34 PM EST
Rhonda Estes panicked when she heard that the Madison County Humane Society in Anderson, Ind., had only enough money to remain open until February. So she relied on a tactic that worked for her last year: Move into the shelter for 30 days and hope the buzz would bring in needed donations.
"I was so upset to learn that we were short on donations that I decided to move in on Dec. 7 and live with the animals again," Estes, 48, tells PEOPLEPets.com. "I was worried because it was Christmastime and the economy is so bad. I wanted to do something to help the animals."
So far, sleeping in the kennels with the 125 dogs and cats, eating TV dinners or carry-out from friends, and enduring the early darkness each afternoon have paid off for Estes, who has worked as both a volunteer and employee at Madison County Humane Society since 1995. This month, the adoption coordinator has raised $23,100 with another week left.
"Yes, it is hard to do this," she tells PEOPLEPets.com, "I miss my kids and two grandkids, I can't get good TV reception here, and the only amusement outside of the animals – who seem to enjoy having me here – is the radio. But the donations have been steady, and I am thrilled."
In April 2008, an accounting employee of the no-kill shelter embezzled $65,000, which crippled the non-profit operation. That is when Estes first moved into the shelter to raise money to replace the now-incarcerated employee's theft.
"I lived here from April of last year until May and we made $23,000 in those 30 days," she continues. "It was tough but so worth it. It also helped us get at least 20 adoptions with nice families."
A few days ago, Estes really felt the warmth of Christmas. A group of sixth graders from nearby Zionsville, Ind., brought money, a leash and collar to her in the shelter. "They all wrote me notes, and I cried my eyes out at their kindness; it was the best Christmas present for me," she says. "It makes some of the tough moments in here seem easy by comparison." To support Estes's cause, contact the Madison County Humane Society on Petfinder.com. See more heart-warming stories on PEOPLEPets.com:Former Michael Vick Pit Bull Enjoying New Life As Therapy DogMeet Baxter, the Star of MilkBone Ads Raising Money for Service Dogs