Founded in 2002, the Pet Project in Wilton Manors, Florida, provides a service to those suffering from serious illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS, and disabling conditions: It helps them keep their animals at home.
The Pet Project recognizes the financial challenges that all too often accompany a serious medical diagnosis. Through its work, pet owners do not have to postpone medical procedures or decide between having a prescription filled or feeding their dog. The Pet Project has supported thousands of pets and their owners, keeping them together during difficult times.
Dogster recently chatted with the Sue Martino, director of the Pet Project. She shared with us how the program began and how it has expanded its services to other clients in need.
Dogster: Tell us how the Pet Project got its start.
Sue Martino: The organization was founded in 2002. At the time, the Pet Project began to help AIDS patients. Back then, there were social programs for people with HIV/AIDS that helped with housing, food, and prescriptions, but there was nothing that helped them keep their pets. The social workers told the patients that they had to give up their pets because they couldn’t afford it. What was happening was that these people were foregoing their own prescription drugs because they wanted to feed their pet.
Also, as time went on, we saw the need [to help] in other areas — people with diabetes, heart disease, all kinds of disabilities, and cancer; and, of course, senior citizens. So, in 2007, we expanded to include all disabilities, illnesses, and senior citizens.
What type of assistance does the Pet Project offer its clients?
What we do is we keep pets in their homes with their families. When people are financially challenged, due to an illness, a disability, or aging — or if they’re the victim of a crime — they’re in a horrific situation. They can no longer provide for their animals, yet their animals are their best friends.
We keep them in their homes. We offer assistance by giving them pet food and pet supplies, like litter, leashes, or whatever they need for their pets. We also do annual vaccines and help to provide reduced-cost veterinary care.
How many clients do you think you have been able to help since 2002?
I would have to say about 10,000. Right now, we are providing for 1,100 pets as we speak.
Does the Pet Project also provide fostering services?
In the past, before people found out about us, they wouldn’t have a procedure done or wouldn’t have an operation because they wouldn’t leave their pet alone. When our clients go into the hospital or need surgery or any kind of hospitalization, we foster pets for them. We also foster and adopt when our clients pass away.
How do people find you?
A lot of the local vets have our information. We have a pilot program going on with the Animal Care of Broward, where they suggest us if people fit our criteria or are thinking of surrendering their pets.
How many volunteers do you have?
How does the Pet Project raise money?
When someone asks me about the project, they usually ask how we raise money. That’s always something that comes up. I tell them we write grants. Maybe close to half of what we need to bring in comes from grants, which is wonderful. But it’s not easy because things change every year. We always have to find new foundations to help support our cause. We have a few really cool fundraisers that are annual, and we are always soliciting donations from individuals and from anyone who wants to help out; we also have an email list and newsletters.
When I make a presentation and I am asked to talk about the Pet Project, I tell this anecdote, which is based on a true story:
It’s Monday morning, and I have a doctor’s appointment. My doctor sits down and gives me the results of my blood test and tells me I have HIV. I am devastated. Who are my friends? Who do I have? I have my pet at home, and it’s my best friend. That’s all I have.
So many people are left in that situation. So many are alone, and all they have is their pet. Your pet is your best friend and your family member. It’s a win-win situation when a person can keep their pet.
The Pet Project is also involved in the Rescue Bank. Can you explain how that works?
The Rescue Bank is a national nonprofit organization that represents the pet food companies. They donate food to the Rescue Bank, and the Rescue Bank then selects affiliates throughout the country. We are the South Florida affiliate, which means we are basically a warehouse and distribution point.
The Rescue Bank benefits us because we get a portion of the food. When the semi truck comes in with 40,000 pounds of food, the Pet Project takes one pallet and the other 40 to 42 pallets must be distributed.
From October to December, we distributed about 240,000 pounds of pet food to rescues that were approved by the Rescue Bank. I have about 55 nonprofits that are registered as approved under my affiliation, and we are able to be a part of helping another 5,000 to 6,000 animals.
How are your services received in the community?
We are very unique. When people hear about us, they’re amazed because we keep animals out of the shelters. We keep them in their homes, with their families. It’s just a wonderful thing. The community is very happy to have us.
The Pet Project also has a thrift store, Hidden Treasures. Tell us about that.
Hidden Treasurers is in the Pet Project building, and all of the proceeds benefit the Pet Project. It is completely volunteer-operated. All of the donations and proceeds go to the Pet Project for us to buy pet food and to help our clients.
Is it true that animals are welcome in Hidden Treasures, but humans …
[Laughs]. Yes, That is true. The animals are welcome, but the humans have to behave. Humans do not have to be on a leash if they are well-behaved.