PEOPLE MAGAZINE: HERO OF THE WEEK Staci Columbo Alonso

Six years ago, Trish Steffen grabbed her two dogs and her cat and fled an abusive relationship. She planned to live in her car in Las Vegas instead of giving up her pets to stay with friends or move into a homeless shelter.

“It was the darkest time of my life – I literally had nowhere to turn,” she tells PEOPLE. “My pets were the only things I had left.”

Then somebody told Steffen, 54, about Noah’s Animal House – a pet sanctuary built on the grounds of The Shade Tree, a domestic violence center in Las Vegas.

Not only did Steffen receive help in rebuilding her life, but her pets had a safe place to live, too. Steffen could visit Arlo, Max and Kitty at the 1,500-square-foot, doghouse-shaped shelter at any time.

“It made such a huge difference in my recovery,” says Steffen, who now lives in Florida, where she works as a caretaker for the elderly. “When you’re already going through such a stressful time, who wants to give up their pets?”

Noah’s Animal House was created in 2005 by Staci Columbo Alonso – a member of The Shade Tree’s board of directors. “It really bothered me that women and children had to check into our shelter without the comfort of their pets,” Alonso, 49, tells PEOPLE. “Plus, the risk was always there that the person who had abused them would use those pets as bait to lure the women back. Something had to change.”

Alonso also had a more personal reason for wanting to build Noah’s Animal House.

In 2000, while pregnant with her only child, her fiancé committed suicide.

“In going through that tragedy, my cats and dogs brought me so much support and love,” she says. “They’re what got me through that difficult time.”

“At The Shade Tree, it’s our job to help women feel comfortable and safe, and nothing does that better than a beloved pet,” she adds.

After caring for a client’s cat at her own home rather than risk having the woman return to live with the man who had beaten her, Alonso convinced others at The Shade Tree to start a fundraiser to build Noah’s Animal House.

Since the animal shelter opened in 2007, three employees, several volunteers and the pets’ owners have cared for more than 800 dogs, cats, guinea pigs, turtles, lizards and birds.