Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Years ago, a kind-hearted pet lover had a dream. Where some might hope to strike it rich or “make it big,” Larry Chusid’s dream was more altruistic – he wanted to help the needy feed their pets. He wanted to make a difference in their lives by helping them keep the animals they dearly loved.
In November of 2009, Larry’s dream became a reality when The Pongo Fund Pet Food Bank opened in Portland, Oregon. I’ve written about it here before, because were it not for CANIDAE and their initial $125,000 donation of pet food, Larry might still be in dreaming mode. But he isn’t, and it warms my heart to know that many, many people and their pets have benefitted because one man dared to dream, and a caring company generously gave what was needed to get this pet food bank going.
As often happens in life, seemingly chance events are life-changing moments. So it was with Larry when he met some CANIDAE folks at a pet-product trade show. The decision CANIDAE made to support The Pongo Fund has greatly impacted not only Larry’s life, but countless thousands of people and pets in their time of need. Now, just two years later, The Pongo Fund partners with more than 100 emergency food agencies, shelters and rescues in Oregon and SW Washington. By providing pet food to anyone with an honest need, Pongo succeeds in both reducing shelter populations and keeping people and their pets together.
I recently caught up with Larry to ask how things have been going.
Me: How many pounds of pet food have been distributed since opening day?
Larry: We focus on individual quality meals, because each meal is a lifeline. In total we’ve provided more than 2,500,000 quality meals for approximately 42,000 animals belonging to nearly 19,000 families.
CANIDAE has been our primary partner since Day One. We could not do what we do without their consistent generosity and support. Our relationship goes well beyond simply donating food. They are our partner in the fight against hunger.
What has it been like overseeing the pet food bank these past two years?
The experience has been a humbling privilege. People open themselves up to us in their most vulnerable state and ask for help. We come to know their struggles, feel their fear and also feel the love they have for their animal family members. We are honored to be able to help in a way that allows people to retain their dignity, provide for their animal and feel a sense of support from the community.
An added benefit of the services offered through The Pongo Fund has been the ability to educate; to teach the importance of responsible pet ownership. Families struggling to feed themselves already face plenty of challenges. Helping them keep their pets fed is paramount, but it directly interlinks with education. Providing a quality diet like that provided by CANIDAE and FELIDAE is an added bonus because it leads to healthier pets. And healthier pets lead to healthier families. We’ve seen the results first hand.
How have things changed?
Our initial focus was the homeless community. That quickly expanded to include anyone in honest need. As the economy continues to erode we find more families living on the edge. Those still with homes may already be in foreclosure, or simply living with friends. Those still with jobs have no guarantee of affording groceries and paying for heat. The Pongo Fund quickly realized the majority of our clients were not homeless, but middle and low income families who had unexpectedly fallen on hard times. People who had never before sought public assistance were now waiting in line for pet food — because hungry people have hungry pets.
Families now begin lining up as much as four hours before our noon opening. Rain or shine, they are there. The socio and economic demographics are well represented; we see it all. In this economy, hunger knows no boundaries. People who just one year ago might have been donating to a food bank are now waiting in line for help from a food bank. Many still have jobs but are struggling with reduced hours, lower pay and a loss of insurance. The stories are many; often troubling, but always inspiring. One of the most memorable was the elderly woman who arrived beautifully dressed, hair and nails perfectly done at home earlier that morning. She said that getting pet food from The Pongo Fund on Sundays was her church. And her Mother taught her that you always dress nice for church. She read her Bible while waiting in line.
What challenges have you faced?
Challenges are frequent and many. Creating recognition in the community for The Pongo Fund and allowing the lifesaving work that we do to become known, respected and supported because of the pervasive value it brings – we have made strides in this area but there are many miles left to travel.
Another challenge has been maintaining adequate food supplies to ensure consistency. If someone is going to stand in line for hours, we want to make sure we have the food they’re counting on. One of the things we’re most proud of is that we have never run out of food. Because no one wants to go home and tell their pets that the food bank was empty.
Prior to The Pongo Fund, human food banks focused only on human food. But the reality was that the human food box would frequently be shared with the family pets. That was a recipe for disaster, leaving families hungry and pets eating food they shouldn’t be eating. To overcome this challenge, we needed to find a way to get the food where it was most needed. This is why we developed a distribution network in addition to our public pet food bank. If a family is already receiving a human food box, we want to make sure they can receive pet food at the same time.
What are your biggest obstacles?
Obstacles are constantly present for any business or non-profit, particularly in the form of funding, and we are no exception. In a community where the economic downturn has hit practically everyone, we fight for limited charitable dollars. Even more challenging is that we are a new group with a new focus. In other words, it’s easy to overlook The Pongo Fund because we are not an animal rescue or shelter; however, that is exactly what we do – we rescue and shelter animals by keeping them with their families. Reducing the number of animals who are surrendered because their family has fallen on hard times brings the greatest possible benefit to Oregon’s animal community.
What do you most want people to know about The Pongo Fund?
That we are an essential component in the fight against hunger. That we are doing something evolutionary and it’s working. That we are succeeding in helping to feed the family by feeding their pets. That we are reducing shelter populations by keeping families together. That sometimes, a simple bowl of kibble can really be the force that keeps a family together and saves the lives of the animals they love.
I want to close with a touching note Larry received:
Dear Pongo People,
You gave my Mom a bag of CANIDAE dog food today. It was my first real dinner in five days. My tail wagged the whole time. But my Mom cried. She said they were happy tears. Thank you. We love you.
From Henry Labrador, Age 9
Read more articles by Julia Williams