Thirteen clients had scheduled a pick-up ahead of time. By the time I arrive, six of those appointments have already been kept. It’s 7:15 pm on a Thursday evening at Lincoln Animal Ambassador’s pet food bank, located at 4640 Bair Street. The physical location for the Pet Food Bank is donated by Dr. Otto of Superior Veterinary Care. I’m welcomed by four volunteers: Heather Bauer, Rod Bauer, Jake Jacobsen, Missy Groover. Immediately inside is a table where clients are checked in. Wall-to-wall are shelves stacked with a wide variety of pet supplies.
Various pet food banks across the United States cite this startling statistic: financial hardship accounts for approximately 25% of the pets that are surrendered to shelters. Besides reducing the number of pets that end up being taken to overcrowded shelters, pet food banks also help provide emotional relief to owners who aren’t able to provide for their pets. In this article, I’ll overview the operations of LAA’s pet food bank and I’ll introduce you to two people highly involved in ensuring it runs smoothly: Mary Douglas and Ron Stow.
Our group tried to think of what was needed in the community that wasn’t already there to help keep animals from going to the shelter. The pet food bank was born.—Mary Douglas
Origins of the Pet Food Bank
Inspired by a public meeting about reducing the euthanasia rate at the Capital Humane Society, Mary was one of the founding members in 2008 of the grass-roots group now well-recognized as Lincoln Animal Ambassadors. Her earliest tasks included helping to write LAA’s mission statement, determining the organization’s goals and, after LAA failed to make any headway through meetings with public officials, starting a food bank.
When I asked why she had accepted the role of coordinating LAA’s pet food bank, Mary laughed and explained that she didn’t “accept” the position. Instead Mary IS the person responsible for the food bank’s existence.” Mary began the food bank by drumming up a few donations of pet food and by operating services out of her garage. At one point, LAA has also run its operations out of the basement of the former Cat House, but this agreement ended when TCH moved. Now the pet food bank is located just off 33rd and Superior, in a space that is about fifteen feet by fifteen, enclosed by four hefty shelving units filled with food, leashes, toys, cat litter, flea, tick, and heartworm treatments.
To my naïve eyes, the pet food bank seems to be abundantly stocked. But then I learn that 2,000 pounds of food is given out every week, and I realize how quickly these shelves will empty. But fortunately the pet food bank has more supplies than I see before me; what doesn’t fit in this location are kept in two 10×10 storage units.
Pet Food Bank Operations
The food bank officially opens at 7:00 pm and closes at 8:00 pm on Mondays and Thursdays, but clients have been known to come before and after those times. A volunteer with a list of applicants in hand will greet clients as they arrive. Clients are asked to show identification and photos of each of the pets whom they’re picking up food for. Sometimes they’ll need to also fill out a short or long application form, if one or the other hasn’t been already completed. Once paperwork is processed, volunteers set to work picking out requested supplies. While food and other items are loaded onto a rolling cart, the clients might browse cartons on shelves to find toys or other goodies for their pet(s). Clients may apply once a month to the pet food bank, so the goal is to provide enough food to last thirty days.
LAA relies on donations. The most often requested products are dog and cat food. Every cat owner is offered a twenty-pound bag of litter. Sometimes a client will ask for a special needs diet or for a specific brand. Volunteers do their best to oblige, but options are sometimes limited. At times, there are requests for food for other animals too: birds, ferrets, guinea pigs, and even rats. The most popular donations are dog food, followed by cat food, and then toys. If clients ask for items that haven’t been donated, LAA may dip into its funds to purchase and provide.
From the start, Mary has maintained her position as coordinator, although her other duties have evolved. When the president of LAA stepped down, the board approached Mary. “I wanted the organization to succeed and knew it wouldn’t if I didn’t step in. There was no one else that wanted that role. It takes a good deal of time because everything that happens–events, pet food bank, spay/neuter, vaccination clinic, new ventures the group takes on—the president is involved in all of them.”
I suppose it wasn’t as much inspiration as a conspiracy between Donna and Mary to get me to get started at the pet food bank—hog-tied, kickin’, and screamin’!—Ron Stow
Four years ago, Ron Stow first got involved with LAA’s pet food bank by helping with loading and unloading of donations. Although his official title is “warehouse manager/Monday night distribution,” Ron jokingly refers to his duties as “throwing around a bunch of pet food”. And, despite the tongue-in-cheek quote, in all seriousness he enjoys his work because “I realize what a difference we make in peoples’ lives.”
I’ve probably put on an inch or two in the arms and shoulders tossing 50-pound bags of food.—Ron Stow
Both Ron and May bring unique qualifications to their roles with the pet food bank. Mary has been involved with animal rescue for about 15 years. She also possesses the attitude that LAA doesn’t want to do anything that will compete with other local animal welfare groups. “We like to collaborate and feel we can get more done working together.” As for Ron, who has been an avionics mechanic in the Air Force and a mechanic at home, he’s simply “trying to fill in where there seemed to be a need”.
What qualifies me for throwing 50-pound bags of food around? Well, I went to the gym in my younger days. —Ron Stow
Memorable Food Bank Moments
Mary and Ron have had their share of memorable moments with the pet food bank. In fact, Mary has so many that she found it impossible to pinpoint just one. Instead she expressed happiness over having a lot of really grateful pet food bank participants, as well as abundant support from the community for animal organizations such as LAA. “I am just so grateful that we have great community support–because none of it would happen without it.”
Unfortunately, there will also be bittersweet moments. Mary told about the time when LAA helped get a great Dane spayed for a gentleman who lived in a camper by the lake. The soft-spoken owner, who loved his dog tremendously, came to Tails and Trails specifically to see LAA to get his dog signed up to get spayed. LAA got him set up right away. Sadly, about a year after that, LAA heard that his dog had developed incurable auto-immune disease. “He’d gotten a job by that time and was getting back on his feet, and he lost her.”
Another situation involved a pet food bank recipient who was homeless and living in his truck with his three dogs. Because he wouldn’t give them up, he couldn’t get into a homeless shelter. LAA members tracked down his estranged family and an outreach caseworker who knew him, and they worked together to get him and his dogs into an apartment that he could afford with his disability payments. “We continue to help him with food. That was certainly a collaboration of minds in that situation.”
Ron also has experienced many memorable moments. One that he’ll never forget involves a gentleman by the name of Mr. Okra. “We had our military ball caps on. He was in the Korean War, and I was in Desert Storm. We were sitting on the loading dock of the old place, relating where each had been, and had been doing so for about 30 minutes. Mrs. Okra was getting a little impatient with our B.S. session and stepped out of the car and said, ‘When are you two gonna quit jack-jawin’ and take me home?’ His response was priceless: ‘Uh-oh, I’m in trouble!’ Sadly, Mr. Okra passed away a few months later.”
During my visit to LAA’s pet food bank, volunteers shared other stories. They told about people who take the bus across town to pick up food that they would carry home in a backpack. They also told of a client who rode a bike 18 blocks in 100 degree heat to pick up supplies. “Now that’s dedication!” And then there’s a lady who from the moment she would walk in to the moment she left, she said thank you. “These people make it worthwhile.”
We’re an all-volunteer group and can’t continue our programs without volunteers to help. LAA is a family… We’re all in this together.—Mary Douglas
As you might surmise, there’s much to be gained from being involved with LAA. You’ll form relationships in working with other volunteers and/or assisting with clients. LAA is a great way to combat pet overpopulation and to allow people to keep their pets that otherwise might not be able to afford to.
Our mission is not glamorous. We don’t have fuzzy kittens and puppies to adopt out. We try to prevent those. But we feel that our mission, that of keeping pets in their homes and of spaying and neutering to prevent unwanted litters, is addressing the root causes of animal homelessness. We cannot adopt our way out of the numbers of animals going into shelters. We have to be preventative.—Mary Douglas
How You Can Help
If you’re interested in helping out, LAA could use your assistance in both small and big ways. First, you can help spread the word about the services it offers. Says Mary, “When someone is in need of the pet food bank, give them our phone number or our e-mail address. Spread the word why it’s important to spay and neuter your pets. And, if there’s a group that would benefit from a presentation from our group, let us know.” Ron concurs, noting that, “Word of mouth spreads our program. I have seen a noticeable increase in the amount of food we distribute, and an increase of people wanting to volunteer. All this has to mean something good is being done.”
Second, you can donate supplies to help the group support its current services. As I mentioned earlier, LAA’s pet food bank relies on donations. While some of these come from stores and manufacturers with a surplus, others come from local animal groups such as the Capital Humane Society and from average animal lovers like you and me. Something that is very much needed, but typically doesn’t get donated is cat litter. Other accepted items are listed at: Donate Pet Supplies. Summertime is also a slow time for donations, when the food bank starts to run low. There are five drop-off locations:
- Petco North, 48th & O Street, Lincoln, NE
- Petco South, 56th & Highway 2, Lincoln, NE
- Super Saver, 27th & Cornhusker Highway, Lincoln, NE
- Super Saver, 56th & Highway 2, Lincoln, NE
- St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, 2325 S. 24th St., Lincoln, NE
Third, you can donate money to help LAA to expand. Mary looks forward to the day when the group will “have a location that we could rent at a very low cost (or even free/shared space as the group once had), about 600 – 900 square feet where we could store our food and other pet items to distribute from the same location.” With such a facility, LAA could more easily store donations and provide quicker service to even more clients. She’d also like “to have support of the pet food bank by a Friends of the Pet Food Bank group, so that when we are low on canned food, or dry food, we could put the word out and that group would help out.” As for Ron, he’d like to see LAA’s pet food bank “work with Meals on Wheels to help out more of the needy, like our weekly distributions do.
Fourth, you can donate your time. Telephone interviewers are needed to process applications for the pet food bank. Volunteers are also needed to distribute food to clients on the nights that the food bank is open. The average turnout on any given night at the food bank is between ten to fifteen clients, which can keep volunteers busy for their entire scheduled hour. In addition, during the Christmas season, numbers have been as high as thirty, with clients waiting in a line outside. “Holidays are a hard time.”
Interested? This position and many of LAA’s other volunteer positions are described on the volunteer application page: What You Can Do. Applicants will be contacted by an LAA volunteer. All volunteers will be asked to attend one of its pet food bank distributions as an orientation to LAA.
Mary Douglas remains solidly entrenched in animal welfare. Like Pauline, whom I featured last week, she continues to volunteer at Hearts United for Animals, and has taken on the responsibility of performing home visits and transporting animals. In addition, as you might expect, she has her own pets. Both dogs are seniors and one has special needs.
Ron Stowe loves their pets. His family has three dogs and three cats. He’s their primary caretaker and takes pains to make sure they’re well taken care of and comfortable.
I’d like to thank Mary and Ron for their willingness for me to interview them. Also, I want to give a special thanks to other LAA pet food bank volunteers who graciously answered my many, many, many questions about the pet food bank and shared stories of their experiences. Next week, I’ll be back to share with about LAA’s humane education services.