Project 3. The Pongo Fund in Portland, OR April 2012

A food bank for pets – what kind of charity is that? At first glance, the idea might look frivolous. There are so many hungry people in America, after all; why worry about pets? However, if you had just lost your job and you were struggling to feed your long-time furry family members or thinking about how you are going to explain to your son that you have to choose between dropping his beloved dog off at a shelter or paying for daddy’s hospital bills, you wouldn’t think it was ridiculous. When you look at the problem of hunger as a whole, a pet food bank is not only a compassionate, but a sensible idea.

The Pongo Fund Wharehouse

The concept that has filled Pacific Northwest pet bowls 3 million times since 2009 was born one fall when founder Larry Chusid saw a homeless couple in Portland. He inquired if they were going to have food for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. They replied that they did, but the soup kitchen didn’t have pet food. This meant that the dogs received part of the meals meant for their owners. Everyone was still hungry and no one was getting the proper nutrition. Whether they are living under a bridge in Oregon or barely making the mortgage payment in suburbia, hungry people have hungry pets.

Larry took the couple a bag of high-quality pet food the next day. Thus began a brand new chapter in the fight to reduce the population of unwanted pets in animal shelters in Oregon and across the nation. You see, if you help a family keep their pets through an emergency situation, the pets stay out of already overcrowded shelters and with the people who love them. Lives are saved and families remain intact, fur members and all.

The Pongo Fund on food distribution day, June 10, 2012. They gave away 29,000 meals that day.

For 35 Projects, I want to look at nonprofit ideas that need to be replicated across the country, and I had been interested in the work that The Pongo Fund does for quite some time. My friend Sarah, a regular Pongo volunteer, made the arrangements. I thought this would be a fun gig, volunteering at Pongo. After all, I got to be with Sarah, a friend I love spending time with, and a new friend, Amy, who I met at the Fences for Fido build the day before. On Sunday morning, I drove across town and parked at the convention center. Walking up to the warehouse with a smile, full of anticipation about buying a Pongo Fund t-shirt, I was stopped in my tracks by the image awaiting me: the line of pet owners wrapped around the building. And this was hours before it opened. I was dumbfounded. The food is distributed two Sundays a month on a first-come, first-serve basis. These owners were desperate to feed their pets, and they were willing to queue up in the hot sun (yes, it was sunny in Portland that weekend) for hours to do it.

 

Meeting Larry

Larry greeted me right away and gave me my assignment. Larry is high energy, organized, and very particular. You can tell that he is the heart and soul of Pongo. He is hands on and in charge. If you were to call Pongo right now, Larry might even answer the phone. While Larry’s management style might seem rigid at first blush, the bottom line is that you don’t accomplish what he has by not knowing exactly how you want things done. Without Larry’s vision and drive, there would be a lot of empty bowls.

When you volunteer at Pongo, you are in a warehouse stacked with pallets of pet food. The many people in line must be interviewed one by one to verify their need and moved into a waiting room resembling a doctor’s office. My job was moving individuals from the waiting room to the warehouse, where they accepted their prepared order of pet food based on the size and number of pets that they had to feed.

I came prepared to work. I wasn’t prepared for what an emotional experience volunteering at Pongo would be. After all, working in the voluntary health sector of the nonprofit world, I am around frank talk about disease and dying every day. The raw emotion that Pongo stirred up was hard for me to handle. Even though finances haven’t always been a bed of roses for my husband and me, we have never been at point where we had to consider pulling up to an animal shelter and surrendering our pets, including one that we have had for 11 years. I imagined how hard it would be to pull out of the shelter parking lot and point the car towards the house that wasn’t a home without them. I imagined what it would be like to leave your best friend, maybe old and arthritic, at the shelter knowing that they would wonder what they had done wrong and likely be euthanized, dying alone and before their time.

Holly’s Story

The economy has given most of us a good thrashing the past few years. Many of the families that are utilizing Pongo or the handful of other pet food banks across the country that have sprung up its likeness never dreamed they would be standing in line for help. They often pictured themselves on the other side, donating to charity. Holly Varner of Michigan had worked for a decade and a half for the same local company. She described what happened next: “They just shut the doors one day and it was all over. That was it.” Unemployment helped her and her small family (daughter Ada, age 7, and her three dogs, Lucy, Lila, and Sammy) get by for a little while, but before long that ran out. “I remember sitting there thinking that I couldn’t afford to feed my dogs,” Varner explained. “It was so hard. They’re my family too. We’ve had than for longer than my daughter had been alive. I just couldn’t bear the thought of having to give them up to the shelter. It was as low as I can remember being.”

Gabe’s Gang, a pet food bank in Southeast Michigan, was there to help her pick up the pieces until she could find a new job and feed her family on her own. And there are stories just like Holly’s from 22,000 other families Pongo has served. I saw it on the faces of the people that had come for help that Sunday, and it touched me. One woman wheeled an elderly dog around in a baby stroller. I would imagine that some individuals that were there that day no longer had any human family left. The pets they were desperate to feed were truly their best (and maybe only) friends. At the front of the line that day was a woman who had just been released from the hospital after emergency surgery; she was there to ensure her pet could eat that day despite her doctor’s orders to stay in bed. Out of work and now with medical bills, this was her only option. She looked like she could have been me or any one of my friends.

I left Pongo and I cried. I cried for the rest of the afternoon. I cried through lunch with a friend in town from Anchorage, I cried while I was driving, I cried while washing my muddy laundry from the day before. I’ve been in either the public service or nonprofit industry my entire adult life and Larry, his operation, and the people that need him impacted me to my core.

On With My Journey

Part of the purpose of 35 Projects is to not only encourage destination volunteering, but to highlight ways that you can fit volunteering into your normal work or leisure travel. I planned this trip to volunteer and see some friends. While in Portland on Pacific Standard Time, I took advantage of the time difference: I was up and functioning at 4 a.m. and enjoyed a sunrise treat from the legendary 24-hour Voodoo Doughnut in Portland. Voodoo is an international tourist attraction and serves 90 different flavors of doughnuts, including the bacon maple. You can even get married at Voodoo under a velvet Elvis picture. I didn’t get married that morning or have a doughnut with bacon, but I did get to take a few photographs of the Skidmore fountain without anyone around.

A bacon maple creation from VooDoo Doughnut

The Pongo Fund is Oregon’s pet food bank. Their mission is to save dogs and cats from being surrendered to overcrowded shelters when their families cannot afford to feed them. And they do a damn good job of it.

 

For more information on The Pongo Fund visit www.thepongofund.org

The Pongo Fund is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity and donations are tax-deductible.

 

 

A special thank you goes out to a dear friend, Amy M., for providing the housing that made this trip a possibility.

 

And a huge thank you to Larry Chusid, founder of The Pongo Fund.  He indeed has what his volunteers describe as a heart of gold.  For me, being able to witness the thriving nonprofit that he built himself was amazing.

 

 

Project 2. Fences For Fido in Portland, OR April 2012

Recently I heard actor Michael J. Fox give an interview where he discussed his view on life. Stricken with a debilitating disease with visible symptoms, Fox discussed his positive outlook and motivation to live life on his terms, no matter what curve ball is thrown at him. One of his most poignant pieces of advice was on keeping it simple. Fox said, “Look, if you want to do something, go do it. Don’t sit there and invent reasons not to.”

I was struck by the power and the truth of his statement. You can sit there and talk about something for weeks, analyzing and fretting, or you can get up and get things done. You might say that Fences For Fido co-founders, Kelly Peterson and Andrea Kozil, live by a similar philosophy. Sick of hearing stories about dogs forced to languish at the end of chains and exposed to the elements year after year, Peterson and friends chose to create an organization to change that, one dog at a time. Their vision became real in Fences For Fido. As the second volunteer group in the United States dedicated to building free fences for dogs confined to chains, this all-volunteer organization was patterned after the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, started in 2006 by The HSUS’s Spay Neuter Initiatives Manager Amanda Arrington in North Carolina.

Almost 300 and Counting

Fences For Fido unchained its first dog in May of 2009. Since then, it has changed the lives of almost 300 dogs in the Portland area. This group drew my attention because they are an all-volunteer nonprofit, meaning not even one of them takes a salary, and the volunteers must have some serious responsibilities that would normally be covered by paid staff. I wanted to see how this plays out during a large volunteer operation.

Fences For Fido’s work benefits not only for the dog and its family, but the community as a whole. Dogs chained for unending periods of time will react in one of two ways: they will become listless and depressed, or violently aggressive. As pack animals, dogs thrive with socialization and companionship. Living life alone and chained can change a dog’s natural gentle temperament into a threatening one. It’s no coincidence that, according to the Centers for Disease Control states, chained dogs are 2.8 times more likely to bite than unchained dogs. A chained dog who gets loose can pose a real threat to a neighborhood.

Volunteers work on Bear's fence

I worked for Fences For Fido as my second project. I made arrangements to volunteer using Fences For Fido’s efficient online system to register for its weekly builds, which would be a point of pride for any organization. The outreach coordinator who welcomed me to the build in Woodburn, OR, was Melinda Miller. Melinda has supported the organization through several builds. Not only is she a great wealth of knowledge, but she is so encouraging towards the newbie volunteers. Being from out of town, I was treated like a VIP with a special introduction and Facebook postings from Fences For Fido announcing that someone from Michigan was volunteering with the group. I met everyone on the team and we got straight to work. A volunteer’s truck pulled in with all of the fence supplies. Fence posts were set, wire was cut, a flurry of activity was happening. My team was tasked with cutting yards of ground wire and bending it so that it was ready to make the enclosure escape-proof.

 

Do you need any help over here?

The Incredible Mr. Bear

Of course, at the center of this was the beneficiary of our morning of work, a gregarious and lovable dog named Bear. A gentle soul, Bear eagerly soaked in our attention and stayed on site for the entire build as we transformed his world from a small plastic igloo doghouse and a tie line to a deluxe fenced-in yard. One of Bear’s people led him around the yard on a leash during the build so that he could inspect. It reaffirmed for me what Fences For Fido has found over the course of dozens of builds: that chaining a pet 24/7 is often the result of a complex set of circumstances. Many families simply do not have the financial resources to build a fence, even though they often do love their pets and want the best for them. Unchaining the dog can facilitate an entire different relationship between the pet and the family, with less guilt from the owners and more socialization to improve the dog’s mental state, which leads to reduced aggression. When Fences For Fido approaches a family about upgrading their fido’s housing with a fence, doghouse, and vet care, some are so overwhelmed with pet ownership that they simply give their dogs up to re-home. Fences For Fido will take them and facilitate the transfer into a loving home when necessary.

 

Bear wants to make sure that you see his new house and comfy straw.

The Show-Off and the VIP Guest

On the build site, Bear had already received a cozy new large doghouse with a shingled roof built to withstand the Pacific Northwest winters from Fences For Fido and he was hamming it up, showing it off. After the build, Bear’s family would allow Fences For Fido volunteers to take him for his second ever car ride for a vet appointment and a good grooming. The mats in Bear’s fur had formed almost into dreadlocks, giving him what volunteers dubbed a Rastafarian look.

Working with Fences For Fido was an amazing experience. While the outreach coordinators and fundraising volunteers had been working for months behind the scenes, from the point of view of the day’s volunteers, things happened fast. The fence was done by noon, even though we had just started at 8 that morning. Being the VIP guest that day (it still makes me laugh), I was able to hang the Fences For Fido plaque on Bear’s fence and release Bear for the first time in his enclosure. This is the magic moment and a sweet spot of the day. Here the formerly chained dog relearns how to run, play, and essentially be a dog without the chain snapping his head back, bringing him to a stop. Since Bear had been onsite all day, his release was a little less dramatic. Walking cautiously over to a volunteer for some pets, Bear then chased after a dog toy thrown by the volunteer. Instead of running straight towards the toy, as you would expect a dog to do, bear turned left and then traveled on the path that he had worn into the earth. This was the path that he had to travel day after day as a chained dog. Bear repeated that a few more times before he began to deviate from what had previously been the only path that his chain had allowed him to take.

For Bear and the others, once you are a Fences For Fido client, they stick with you for the long haul. With twice yearly check-ins by the outreach coordinator, Fences For Fido dogs and the families that love them receive education on keeping the fido safe during the heat of the summer and the cold of winter. Every dog who receives a fence also gets a sturdy new doghouse furnished with a durable, handmade bed, free or reduced-cost spay/neuter, and other urgent veterinary care. Training consults are available if the dog has behavioral issues. Volunteers deliver seasonal care packages of treats, flea treatment, new beds, and other goodies and check the condition of the fence. It is amazing to witness a dog sighing contently in their new house as their small, uncomfortable, and unprotective shelter lays discarded off to the side. When you see that, the chain tossed aside, you are reminded of how far they have come.

Smokey - chained and alone, miles from anyone

Smokey’s Fund

I also became interested in and made a donation to Smokey’s Fund. Smokey was found alone and chained on a hill by an animal lover who stumbled upon him while searching for a lost cat. Chained for nine years in deplorable conditions, Smokey had mats the size of softballs hanging from his long collie fur. Poor nutrition, constant exposure to the elements, no exercise, untreated infections, and general lack of veterinary care had left him deaf (one of his eardrums had disintegrated from infection) with a paralyzed larynx, severe arthritis, and degenerative joint disease. Smokey’s “owner” allowed him to be taken away by the kind person that happened upon him and simply couldn’t bear to leave him there to live that life for one more day. This was before Fences For Fido existed. Some people had probably even seen Smokey but had no idea how to help or whom to call. This isn’t the case anymore thanks to Fences For Fido’s amazing volunteers.

Smokey after his rescue

Once rescued, Smokey received much needed veterinary care and constant love and attention – but he suffered for the rest of his life from being chained and neglected all those years. He had three good years with a family that loved him, and this fund will ensure his legacy lives on forever. You can learn more about Smokey and the animals that his fund has helped at: http://www.fencesforfido.org/node/172

Smokey’s Fund at Fences For Fido

Builds fences & provides houses for dogs who have lived for more than 5 years chained.

Provides comprehensive veterinary care and medications for these physically suffering dogs.

Helps facilitate the rescue & adoption of these dogs.

Supports educational efforts about the physical suffering and illness that result from a dog being chained.

 

Fences For Fido is a 501c3. Donations are tax-deductable and can be made at www.fencesforfido.org or mailed to P.O. Box 42265, Portland, OR 97242

Bear after a grooming appointment

Thank you to Melinda Miller and all of the volunteers at Fences For Fido for a truly unforgettable experience.

A special thank you to my wonderful friend, Amy M., who generously gave me a place to stay, making this trip a possibility. She believed in this project and encouraged me when I wasn’t even sure what I was doing or that anyone would be interested. Turns out she was absolutely right!

 

Thank you! Everyone I volunteered with was helpful and welcoming