Volunteers make sure County pets don’t go hungry

3 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — Volunteers at Caribou’s Halfway Home Pet Rescue Free Pet Food Pantry recently distributed $2,567 worth of food, purchased from Sleeper’s, thanks to grant funding that not only helped animals, but gave the pet rescue a new mission.

Through collaboration with the Aroostook Agency on Aging, the pantry distributes pet food to sites in the Caribou and Presque Isle region, as well as in the St. John Valley and Houlton areas.

The food was moved to the pantry’s warehouse in addition to the Fort Fairfield and Caribou police stations, the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging, and to about three of four feral cat colonies on Jan. 15 as part of the rescue’s mission to feed hungry pets in the area.

Halfway Home Pet Rescue Executive Director Norma Milton said this is among the organization’s largest single deliveries. 

And while the organization receives a good amount of anonymous donations, it received two $10,000 grants in mid-2020 — one from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation and another from Maine Community Foundation Animal Welfare Grants.

The grants came shortly after the rescue had lost a free food resource through Hannaford in Portland in late 2018.

“Honest to gosh I don’t think Halfway Home Pet Rescue would exist right now,” Milton said. “I know we would’ve gone under if we hadn’t gotten these grants.”

The organization formerly focused on going out and rescuing animals, but has since changed its mission to focus on the pet food pantry, in addition to spaying and neutering pets. 

“I’m 77; I can’t go out and climb trees or snow banks or anything like that anymore,” Milton said. “We applied for those grants and that’s what saved us.”

Halfway Home Pet Rescue volunteer Sally O’Neal of Woodland observes a feline patient after surgery during a 2019 spay/neuter clinic in Caribou.  (Courtesy of Norma Milton)

Milton said there are plenty in need right now, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They just don’t know which way to turn, and we don’t want them turning their pets in to a humane shelter. That breaks up a family. The pet loves them, and they love their pet,” Milton said

Prior to the pandemic, Milton said there were roughly 40 volunteers donating their time to help HHPR. But with several being of an age that puts them at risk for the virus, that number has gone down. 

As of mid-January, Milton said about 10 or 15 volunteers are doing individual deliveries to the homes of people in need who may not have access to transportation, or money for a cab.

Erin Walsh, nutrition services manager at the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging, said they began collaborating through the agency’s Meals on Wheels program last year, allowing them to distribute both meals and pet food to their clients.

Walsh said she was inspired to do something last spring while delivering food.

“I was seeing a lot of our clients were all alone with only their pets for companionship, and I didn’t want them to have to choose between feeding themselves or feeding their pet(s). I was actually buying pet food for a couple clients out of my own pocket, but I knew the need was so great and I couldn’t do it on my own,” Walsh said.

Halfway Home Pet Rescue volunteers Bruce and Jon finish loading a third shipment of pet foods and cat litter recently for the HHPR Free Pet Food Pantry. (Courtesy of Deborah Roark)

Shortly afterward, she said Milton reached out about working together.

“It was a dream come true for me,” Walsh said. “This collaboration allows us to provide excellent nutrition to our Meals on Wheels clients and their pets.”

She said Milton will send over a truckload of dog food, cat food and cat litter to the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging each month, which they can deliver to their clients.

The Aroostook Agency on Aging has about 10 staff members and 25 volunteers assisting with these efforts.

Walsh said efforts like this are more important now than ever amid a pandemic that has only worsened social isolation among the region’s aging population.

“This is why getting started last year was so important. So many of our clients are alone with no family and otherwise socially isolated. For those of us who have had the pleasure of having a pet at home at some point in our lives, we knew what the love of an animal does for our soul. Making sure that our clients could feed their companions is so important. I didn’t want to see our clients lose their pets or give up their own food to keep a pet fed,” Walsh said.

And despite distributing thousands of dollars worth of food to pets in need, Milton said the volunteers are not out for recognition or praise.

“They work very quietly, but they work very hard,” Milton said. 

Volunteers can sometimes walk into a dire situation when delivering food, seeing homes with nothing but peanut butter crackers on the table, empty refrigerators or no car in the driveway, motivating them at times to buy food for some families with money out of their own pockets.

Milton said the reaction of people receiving donations is often overwhelming.

“I have to struggle very, very hard to keep from crying,” she said. “There’s so much gratitude there, and there’s such a great need, and I know we can’t meet all their needs, but we’ll try to get them through, at least for a short time.”