NEW PORT RICHEY
Papito sat on the floor next to John Baldwin, his usual spot the past 10 years. It was the third Wednesday of the month and both patiently waited for that knock on the door. Finally it came — and with it a month's supply of food for Papito, a brown, 85-pound chow mix.
The dog is one of the beneficiaries of Cindy's Pets, a west Pasco program that does for pets what Meals on Wheels does for their human companions.
"They feed my best friend; can't ask for anything else," said Baldwin, 72, whose family is spread outside of Florida.
The program was the brainchild of Missy Nurrenbrock, principal of the Genesis School (and wife of the county's budget director). She had long read about elderly nutrition programs elsewhere that also delivered pet food to the households they served.
After her sister, Cindy, died, Nurrenbrock and her two other siblings decided to start a similar program in Pasco County in her memory.
"She loved her animals," Nurrenbrock said of her late sister.
When they pitched their idea last summer to Gabriel Papadopoulos, the program manager of Pasco County Elderly Nutrition, the decision was easy.
"It's just what we need," he told them.
Papadopoulos said he knew some Meals on Wheels clients were giving some of their own food to their pets — shortchanging everyone's nutritional needs.
"Most elders live on a fixed income," Papadopoulos said. "And their pet is their most cherished possession and friend that they have, and in order to preserve their pet and preserve their best friend they are going to share what they have."
Meals on Wheels provides home-delivered meals on a daily or weekly basis to about 500 people countywide, including about 300 in west Pasco. The recipients pay a small donation for their meals, but Nurrenbrock wanted the pet food to be free.
Elderly Nutrition sent out surveys that revealed 57 west Pasco seniors with 167 pets could use the food. The critters included dogs, cats, birds and even a rabbit.
For Nurrenbrock, that was the green light she was hoping for.
She started spreading the word around the three Genesis School campuses. Before she knew it, she had parents, teachers and students ready to help in any way they could.
She thought her first obstacle would be collecting the pet food — but to her surprise, as soon as people heard about the effort, pet food donations started pouring in.
Some Genesis students also give their time to the cause. They participate in "mix and pack" days to prepare the pet food packages, and they help load the cars for delivery. They also make posters and decorate donation cans with pictures of animals.
The first delivery was made Dec. 19.
Some of the first ones to sign up as official volunteers to make the deliveries were animal lovers like Rita Shell and her mother, Collette Merenda.
"When we first started we didn't know what we would be getting into," Shell said. "But we love animals and this is a great way to help the elderly."
Shell not only got her mother involved, but she decided her kids would be part of Cindy's Pets too.
"What I most love about this is that it is teaching our children about helping others, helping animals and community service," she said.
"Some of the people we brought food to were crying, they were so ecstatic," said Cindy's Pets volunteer Stacy Stone.
After six months of delivery, Thelma Nation and her two cats, Miss Kitty, 14, and Boo Boo, 1, along with her cockatiel bird, Little Bit, 5, look forward to the monthly visit from Shell and Merenda.
"Sometimes we are the only people they see in a long time," Merenda said.
Merenda said every team has stuck with the route they were first assigned to because they have become close to their clients. They keep an eye out for them.
Helen Lobem, 92, of Hudson said she is grateful that Cindy's Pets helps feed her 3-pound "little but mighty" brown chihuahua, Zeus, 3.
"We save tremendously on his food," Lobem said.
Cindy's Pets now delivers an estimated 1,500 pounds of pet food every month to about 60 households. The program only reaches west Pasco clients, but organizers would like to expand.
"I believe it is going to eventually cover the entire county," Papadopoulos said.
"Cindy's Pets has been so instrumental now, and with their leadership, I think they will only grow."
Jacqueline Baylon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6247.