When Meals on Wheels volunteers deliver food in Amarillo, they also make time for pats, belly rubs and a scratch behind their clients’ ears. That’s because the meal delivery service for homebound people now brings food to the clients’ pets.
The service, called AniMeals, started in November 2021 under the guidance of Susie Akers, Meals on Wheels executive director. “I think it’s an awesome program,” Akers says. “I haven’t gotten one negative response.”
AniMeals client Tommie Sossaman’s constant companion is his longhaired brown Chihuahua, Jetta. When Sossaman was hospitalized recently, one of the most difficult aspects of his health crisis was being away from his dog. “She was miserable and he was miserable because they want to be together,” Sossaman’s daughter, Tina Denton, says. She adds that the dog provides great comfort, so it’s important to keep her well-fed and healthy. “Jetta has become his best friend. She has really helped him.”
Denton, who lives out of town, says she is grateful that Meals on Wheels provides food for both her father and his beloved pet. “It’s especially helpful because the home health aides don’t have to worry. It’s one less thing for the caregivers to do.”
Jetta likes the food and enjoys greeting the volunteers who deliver it, says Sossaman. “She doesn’t bark very much,” he adds, patting her silky head.
Another AniMeals client, Nina Simpson, also looks forward to her deliveries. Dressed in an emerald green tracksuit that complements her dog’s striped sweater, Simpson doesn’t let her ever-present oxygen cannula—or the fact that she no longer drives—stop her from caring for her pets. “I call him Tiger but his real name is Sir Thomas,” Simpson says, stroking the small, shaggy dog on her lap. Tessa, her other dog, joins them on the recliner—a lap filled with love.
Simpson says the pet food deliveries have been extremely helpful, adding that her dogs love the food that the Meals on Wheels volunteers bring for them, just like she enjoys the meals she receives. Although Simpson says she knows she shouldn’t share her meals with Tiger and Tessa, she smiles. “We like the food and when we say ‘we’ …” she concludes with a wink.
Currently, the Amarillo AniMeals program delivers between 800 and 900 pounds of pet food to about 100 dogs and cats each month. Akers says Meals on Wheels has purchased some of the food, but most of it is donated. Without donations, the cost of the program would be more than $800 a month. Volunteers measure the food into individual, sealable bags that are easy for their elderly clients to carry. “After the first delivery, the volunteers said the clients just broke down and cried,” Akers says. “The clients told us it was such a relief not to have to spend money on pet food.”
Many Meals on Wheels recipients struggle with health issues and disabilities. “They shouldn’t have to choose between feeding themselves, feeding their pets, paying their electric bills or buying their medicine,” Akers says.
Helping Pets Helps People
Lota Taylor, Meals on Wheels volunteer coordinator, says helping pets is one way the organization can support clients. “It’s their companion that keeps them from being lonely and contributes to their well-being.”
“Their pets are like family,” adds Akers. “They help so much with companionship, isolation, depression. They help the clients stay in their homes longer. If Meals on Wheels can come by and give them a meal and check on them and help feed their pets—it’s just a win-win.”
AniMeals deliveries are only available for Meals on Wheels clients. Of the 333 clients the privately funded organization serves, about half are pet-owners. Word about the program is still spreading.
“We’re trying to get all the pets’ names and put them on the volunteer route sheets,” Akers says. “That way the volunteers can ask about the pets by name. For instance, ‘How is Cinnamon today?’ ‘Is Mr. Pickles liking his food?’”
Though that approach doesn’t exactly work with one client, according to Akers. That client has several cats. All of them are named Harry.
Making House Calls
Additional pet-related programs are in the works. A new partnership between Meals on Wheels and the Texas Tech University School of Veterinary Medicine will soon institute a second stage of the program. Beginning this spring, veterinary school students will begin making house calls to provide free basic veterinary care to AniMeals pets, conducting medical check-ups and giving vaccinations.
When needed, they’ll also transport pets to the veterinary school for routine surgeries such as spays and neuters. The Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation will cover the cost. “I’ve been dreaming about this for several years,” says Akers, who designed the partnership based on similar programs in other cities and her own observations of her clients’ needs.
Clients like Nina Simpson are already looking forward to the veterinary services. “I have to have someone drive me to the vet and the last visit was $200,” she says.
Dr. Clayton Cobb, assistant professor of general veterinary practice at the Texas Tech Veterinary School, says the program will help the clients and pets while giving students invaluable hands-on experience with pet-owners and their animals. “It’s helping out the community, pets, loved ones and Amarillo,” he says. Coincidentally, Cobb says, his students had already inquired, on their own, about starting a similar outreach before the partnership was announced. “They are go-getters and they want to do this.”
That group includes first-year veterinary student Brayden Hemmeter. “Texas Tech School of Veterinary Medicine was founded on a set of core values, one of which is community,” he says. “It is important to give back to the community that has paved the way for us to be here, and the AniMeals is a great way to get this started.”
Another first-year student, Colton Buttgen, says he looks forward to gaining real-world experience outside the classroom. “We have been working on our communication skills, physical exams of animals and other various clinical skills, and this program is a great opportunity to sharpen those skills in the real world while also helping the community,” he says.
Both the student visits and the food deliveries will give Meals on Wheels new opportunities for human interaction, which is key to the organization’s goals. “It really is more than just a meal,” says Taylor, who has been delivering for Meals on Wheels for 35 years. “It’s a safety check. It’s human contact. It makes a difference in their day.”
Doing the Work
Akers shares that sentiment and gives thanks to the 450 local volunteers that make the Amarillo Meals on Wheels and AniMeals programs possible. “I feel like I couldn’t do it without all our volunteers. They get the work done.” Since AniMeals has started, Akers says Meals on Wheels has gained new volunteers and donors. “It has opened up a whole new area for us,” she says. Volunteer groomers and dog walkers may be the next addition to the program, according to Akers.
As for Simpson, she welcomes the chance for Tiger and Tessa to make new friends. “See, he sits up by himself,” Simpson says, pointing proudly to Tiger with a smile. “You are a showoff.”
Akers hopes the program will continue to grow, for the benefit of homebound seniors and their pets. “If we can keep the clients and the pets healthy—and both of them happy—that’s a wonderful goal.”