Larry Chusid’s back is killing him — so much that he winces when he walks. But the founder of The Pongo Fund Pet Food Bank has never missed a twice-monthly distribution day yet, and he’s not about to start now.
“I love being here,” he says. “I wanna be in this cold warehouse … I want to be in this place that is filled with so much love and so much goodness. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
A growing line of people stand patiently inside, hugging themselves in soggy sweaters and shaking out umbrellas and plastic bags. Many are trailing handcarts and backpacks that will soon be filled with high-quality food for the much-loved cats and dogs waiting at home or in the car.
One man explains to another how, in addition to his own felines, he also cares for a neighbor’s outdoor-only cats. He worries about them now that the weather is getting colder.
Further up the line an older woman is talking to the volunteer veterinarian about the health of the lumbering, arthritic black Lab panting at her side. There’s a happy hum inside these concrete walls; many of the volunteers and guests know each other well, and chat about their health, the weather, and of course, their beloved pets.
Sunday, Nov. 10th, The Pongo Fund Pet Food Bank — which began out of the back of Chusid’s car just over four years ago — served up meal number 5 million. It’s an astounding accomplishment, and one that makes Chusid both happy and sad in its reflection of the depth of need and the level of success. “When I talk to somebody and they tell me they’re going hungry to keep their pet fed, I know that 30 volunteers can come here on a given Sunday and fix that problem, and that’s a good feeling.”
But the bags of kibble handed out here today will do much more than nourish a pet. For many owners, it is the one thing keeping their family together. For some animals, it can make the difference between life and death. For Chusid, that pet food has the potential to be an agent of great social change.
He may very well be right.
The Road to Here
The Pongo Fund is a community painstakingly built on trust. From the two-story-high stacks of kibble to the volunteers’ genuine effort to engage guests in conversation and call them by name, everything is designed to instill a sense of security, dependability, and calm.
It’s in that trust-based relationship The Pongo Fund has created that its founder sees opportunity beyond just helping hungry pets.
“Once you have that trust, you can take them to places they might not get to on their own,” explains Chusid.
An example of that is in the fact that Pongo has been able to persuade the owners of more than 1000 pets to have them spayed and neutered. “The significance of that is we’re not a spay-neuter organization, yet look what we’ve been able to do, simply by being a trust-based organization,” says Chusid.
He also points out that The Pongo Fund is benefitting the community as a whole both financially and socially by keeping pets with their families, and that feeding pets is a necessity when one looks to resolve the issue of hunger. “Without us the food box filled with people food simply becomes pet food,” he says. “They’re going hungry so their pets do not.”
And when a family becomes truly desperate, a pet will likely end up in a shelter — a much less cost-effective solution for any municipality, and one that can cause a whole family to unravel.
This mission to save families isn’t just limited to a couple of Sundays a month in Portland’s industrial district. The Pongo Fund provides pet food to over 100 different food pantries, rescues, and shelters in 28 Oregon and SW Washington counties, including Oregon Food Bank, Snowcap Charities, Neighborhood House, West Columbia Gorge Humane Society and Curry County Animal Shelter.
“We partner with many organizations to accomplish our mission, but The Pongo Fund is one of the best,” says Judy Alley, executive director of SnowCap Community Charities. “They enable us to provide what low-income pet owners need and deserve — the ability to feed everyone around the table.”
One more bowl of food, one more day a cat or dog gets to stay with its family, one more chance at a better outcome for everyone. Or, as Chusid puts it: “We’re patching the hole from the inside.”
Down the Road
Kassondra Young has been volunteering at The Pongo Fund for about a year. Her table will be the last stop for guests who have already filled out the requisite paperwork and are ready to pick up their pet food. She is heartened by what she sees when she comes here. “Regardless of their situation, people are always happy to be here because they’re happy they can feed their family.”
Volunteers are the lifeblood of The Pongo Fund, according to Chusid. “We have great people,” he says proudly. “This team could do anything — we are the textbook example of strength in numbers.”
That said, Chusid sees that the organization is now in need of very specialized volunteers and increased funding in order to realize its potential. “We need to grow our board. We need a programmer, we need good [computer] equipment. There are people in this community who have abilities and love a challenge. I want to bring them together and help them understand that by feeding pets we’re helping feed and heal people.”
Spend a day at The Pongo Fund and the connection is easy to understand, as is Chusid’s passion for the cause. Stan Bland, who has been part of The Pongo Fund from the beginning, says working with Chusid is not always easy, but that it has been a great thing. “He’s very organized, he’s very precise, and he knows about the human spirit.”
Chusid also knows that while its goals are big, The Pongo Fund has already achieved much. “This is beyond what I saw. I didn’t know that we would make it four years. Yet here we are."
Check out the Pongo Fund food drive happening in December, when you can sponsor a bag and get a T-shirt. Click here for details.
Michele Coppola is a Portland-based air personality for 99.5 The Wolf and copywriter for Entercom Radio. When she's not talking, writing, or pursuing quality couch time with husband Bryon and their dogs, Cindy and Lucy, she's also a proud volunteer for Fences for Fido and Family Dogs New Life Shelter.