Eddie Mae Givens came to the door accompanied by a teeny barking dog. She was stooped so far over — her back has hurt, she said, since she ruptured a disc working as a laundress during World War II — that the first thing to appear was the top of her head, which was covered with a blue knit stocking cap with a snowflake pattern.
"Come in. Come in," Givens, who had just turned 93, said to Gina Shields as she tried to keep the yapping chihuahua — Frankie — from biting or fleeing or both.
Shields, a full-time accountant, started Senior Pet Connection a year ago. The Pinellas County program delivers pet food and supplies to homebound and needy seniors, and Givens was one of her first clients.
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Shields said a couple of things happened that made her want to find a way to help older people keep their pets even though they might not have the means to do so.
She and her son, Jessie Griffin, were volunteering with a pit bull rescue group when they got a call from a terminally ill man. He had to go into hospice care but would not go until he knew that his dog, Twinkie, would be okay.
They found Twinkie a home.
Not long after that, a friend who delivers Meals on Wheels told Shields, "I barely get the little food tray in the door and they give half of it to their pets."
That bothered Shields so much that she started asking for donations of pet food and supplies and got a great response when people found out where the donations were going.
"We didn't want to be a rescue. We want to help the parents of the animals," she said.
And so she went to Meals on Wheels for help identifying those in need. Its delivery drivers gave applications to clients with pets.
Almost immediately, she had 25 applications.
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For the first three months, she and her husband, Walt, did everything themselves, including putting a lot of their own money into buying food. Then they enlisted her son and his wife, Barbie.
"As our client base grew, we established separate routes and gained other volunteers to help with deliveries," Shields said.
It now has 12 volunteers delivering food to about 100 animals in 60 homes once a month with the help of a comprehensive database that includes vital statistics on each client's pet and the type of food it requires or is accustomed to.
The pet food and supplies come only through donations, which have not been hard to drum up, she said. But the client list is growing and the group is outgrowing the small space it rents in which to keep the supplies. A bigger space is needed.
She ignores murmurings she sometimes hears that people with so little for themselves should not have pets.
"To many homebound seniors, having a pet is their only source of companionship and comfort," she said.
The program is designed to give a little help with pet food and supplies to make sure that it isn't an added burden to maintain that important bond between the pet owner and the pet, she said.
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Eddie Mae Givens led the way through her enclosed front porch into the main room of the house. The walls were decorated with thumbtacked Jesus pictures. She sat on the couch, and Frankie immediately jumped into her lap.
"I got him from the vet a couple of years ago. I wouldn't take nothing for my little boy," she said.
She had a hearty laugh and never stopped smiling as she held hands with Shields and talked about coming to St. Petersburg from Saginaw, Mich., when she was 21.
She lives next to a church and has friends to help her out, but none seem more dear to her than the couple who bring food for Frankie.
"They're just as sweet as sugar. The Lord sent them because he knew I needed them."
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Some of the other clients along this day's eight-stop South Pinellas route might have been as appreciative but they weren't as friendly. But then there was a brand-new client in St. Petersburg who was so grateful she almost started crying when handed the food.
She had been referred by her neighbor, WillieBelle Muldrow, 88, who got the very first Senior Pet Connection delivery for her dog, Prince, last March.
Prince, a graying mix of perhaps pit bull and German shepherd, sat lovingly at her feet as she talked about him. He likes chicken gizzards on his dog food. His nails need to be trimmed.
Gina Shields perked up at that. She told WillieBelle she would have the vet — Hillary Hart, who operates Vet With Hart Veterinary House Call Practice — come out and do it. It wasn't long ago that another client's dog's nails were so long they grew into his pads and he cried when he walked. Shields wouldn't let that happen again.
A few streets over, Louise Baker, who came to St. Petersburg in 1947 from Arkansas with a family to be their housekeeper, and her two dogs, Jo-Jo and J.B., live in a relatively new house that was built after her other one burned down.
She lost everything, she said. She didn't even have a pair of shoes.
"All those people donated stuff. I get $40 a month in food stamps, and my Social Security is $500. I trust in the Lord.
"And Jo-Jo and J.B. make me so happy," she said.
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On another day, on another route, volunteer Teresa Smith of Palm Harbor was making a monthly delivery to appreciative clients in north Pinellas County.
One stop was to Trish Takakjy, 65, of Clearwater and her cat, Muffin.
"We survive just on Social Security, and every little bit helps us and our cat," she said. "This takes care of Muffin and her needs."
At another house in Clearwater, Sandee Sutter hugged Smith after she handed her the food for her Maltese, Pippi.
"The program allows me to buy food for myself," Sutter said. "It's tough when you just have Social Security to live on. I would not be able to have an animal without this."
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On the South Pinellas route, Shields asked at every stop if the slippers, pajamas, robes or other presents she had given them for Christmas fit. Most were fine. One pair of slippers was too small. No problem, she'd return them and get the right size. She handed each of them a tin of dog cookies, stressing they were dog cookies (implying, "Don't eat them").
Many of the homes had little decorated Christmas trees that she and her husband had brought them before the holidays.
"You can't help but get attached," Shields said.
Patti Ewald can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746.