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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.