Pets on Wheels looking to boost funds

Howard group must provide own financing

April 25, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

When she spotted Boomer, the eager yellow Labrador with the blue Pets on Wheels bandanna around his neck, in the lobby of the Heartlands retirement community center, 83-year-old resident Pat Conway couldn't resist.

She held the 3-year-old dog's head in both hands, pulled her face close to his and began talking softly to him.

"You're a good one," she said, rubbing behind Boomer's ears as he began looking to his owner, retired lawyer Chris Vissers, 64, for one of those tasty bacon-flavored treats Vissers had in his vest pocket.

Judy Kyle, 60, a resident at the Ellicott City facility recovering her ability to speak after a stroke, came to see Boomer too, along with Harriott Warner, 82, who has her own dog, a Whippet named Spot.

"I like to see how they interact with other people," Warner said. The other residents "just love coming down to see the dogs," she said.

Last year, 60 volunteers made more than 800 visits to 13 nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and senior centers, said Sharonlee Vogel, chairwoman of Friends of Pets on Wheels in Howard County. The program is valuable but short of money, she said. "It brings contact. Some people will open up to a dog or cat and not to a person."

Howard's group, started in 1986, was once part of Pets on Wheels Inc., which provides the same services across the Baltimore area. But funding from the parent group was interrupted and then stopped, Vogel said, though suddenly last week, the group decided to help out financially once again.

Howard County's Office on Aging provides the group a cubicle and a phone at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia, said administrator Sue Vaeth, At minimum, $10,000 pays the part-time salary of Tricia Summers, the group's coordinator.

"We thought it was a good program," Vaeth said. "For some people, it's the only visit they get."

Vogel wants to raise more than the minimum needed to operate, however. "We'd like to go to 20 hours a week and increase awareness of the program," she said, adding that she was delighted to learn of the renewed pledge of support from Pets on Wheels, Inc.

"We'd like to raise $15,000 to $20,000 to pay for signs, brochures, events" and other activities, Vogel said.

A fund to accept donations was set up under the auspices of the Columbia Foundation, Vogel said, and the group has raised the first $2,500, enough to pay the coordinator through this fiscal year, until June 30.

Terry Trimble, a volunteer lawyer for the Baltimore-based Pets on Wheels Inc., said his group held an emergency meeting Wednesday night and agreed to pay for the coordinator through 2010.

"The state board of Pets on Wheels is committed to the continuation of the Howard County program," he said, and can at least provide a financial safety net while private donations are also sought.

Meanwhile, Vogel is trying to boost the group's finances with local contributions.

Vissers said he joined 15 months ago, after Boomer completed two obedience training programs that taught him to quickly obey basic commands such as "sit" and "stand" and even "weave," in which he trots through Vissers' legs as he walks, using exaggerated steps. After each trick, Boomer sits, staring intently at the pocket he knows holds his bite-size treats.

"Originally, he was a little bit of a behavior problem," Vissers said. But he passed the Pets on Wheels personality test and seems to love visiting the people at Heartlands as much as they love to see him.

"It's extremely rewarding," Vissers said of hearing people he and Boomer visit say things like, "It makes my day."

Conway's enthusiasm was partly due to the dogs she owned in years past. She once had a female yellow Lab named Apple that died at age 14, she said. She also had a female black Lab named Zipper, but she had to give her away.

"She was getting stronger and I wasn't walking so well," she said. Boomer brought back those pleasant memories, she said.

Kyle also enjoyed the visit. Her stroke has made it hard for her to say the words she is thinking, she said, and left her with some memory problems.

Warner walks with a slim cane, but still lives independently on the 48-acre Heartlands campus on Ridge Road. She loves Labs, too, she said.

"They make wonderful pets."

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