Approximately seven years ago, volunteers for the Meals on Wheels program recognized a problem. Many of recipients of the initiative’s free meals were feeding their limited meals to their pets. That sparked the creation of sister program aniMeals in Wheels, which provides cat and dog food to seniors’ furry companions.
This semester, a group of students at the University of Houston’s Jack J. Valenti School of Communication are using their talents to bring attention to this program and collect pet food donations. Unopened bags and cans of dog or cat food can be dropped off at Valenti School’s front office through May 5. This pet food drive, Cougar Paws for the Cause, also allows students to apply their public relations skills to a real world situation.
Students in lecturer Mike Emery’s public relations writing class were tasked with creating flyers, videos, press releases and articles to promote the campaign. Students then took the project up a notch and committed themselves to collecting donations.
“The idea is to primarily provide students with an opportunity to make a difference in the community. I thought this was an effective way to promote awareness of this program,” Emery said. “Part of this campaign is not only to generate donations, but also to get students thinking about the challenges faced by some Houston seniors.”
Both Meals on Wheels and aniMeals on Wheels are administered by Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston (IMGH) and serve seniors in need. Hannah Weier, IMGH manager of volunteer services, supervises what has become a wonderful and rewarding program for pets and senior citizens in Houston. Weier is familiar with the program as she’s also served as a volunteer coordinator over the years.
“Seniors were sharing their Meals on Wheels food with their pets, which was obviously not a sustainable model for their wellbeing and nutrition, or the pets’ wellbeing or nutrition,” Weier said. “The national program Meals on Wheels of America asked independent Meals on Wheels operations, like us, ‘hey what can you do about this in your area?’ So, we began the aniMeals on Wheels program in Houston.”
The goal of aniMeals on Wheels is to collect enough donations of pet food to assist senior clients. Although it is a relatively new program, it has about 600 senior clients, and it provides food for about 1,100 pets. About two-thirds of those pets are dogs, while one-third are cats. To meet the needs of these clients, aniMeals on Wheels requires annual donations of about 96,000 pounds of food. Weier hopes that one day other pets such as birds and rabbits can be served as well.
Current donations only serve as a supplemental source of food because the organization can only provide enough pet food to feed a dog or cat for about a week. Seniors only receive donations on a monthly basis.
Although aniMeals on Wheels is not yet a nationally-recognized program, the name of Interfaith Ministries has generated a diverse group of donors for its Houston branch. People have discovered aniMeals on Wheels because of IMGH’s work with refugee services, interfaith relations and because it is associated with the long –running Meals on Wheels program. It also receives support from United Way, Sysco Foods and Shell. These corporations provide substantial donations that help the program to ensure its future goals of expansion.
aniMeals on Wheels also provides medicine and flea treatment as well as treats and toys, based on received donations. In the future, aniMeals would like to regularly supply vaccinations and flea treatment for all pets on the program.
The scale of the program may not be as visible to the general public, but the impact has been easily recognizable for those involved.
“We called one woman and said ‘now we will be bringing you pet food,’ and she was in tears,” Weier said. “She was crying because she was sharing her food with her pet.”
Many studies have shown that having pet companions during older life has shown to extend lifespan and health. While aniMeals on Wheels does not advocate pet ownership, they want to be able to reach its goal of helping those who do have pets. With the help of students at the University of Houston and the Houston community, this goal will easily be attainable.
Cougar Paws for the Cause has collected donations at UH for five years and has benefitted from the support of Casey Curry, meteorologist at KTRK ABC13. Curry has served as the campaign’s honorary chair since its inception. This year’s campaign is the first time Emery has asked students to use what they’ve learned in the classroom to bring awareness to this program and raise donations. Student groups have created videos, flyers, press releases and feature articles to promote Cougar Paws for the Cause. They are committed to raising donations through individual public relations plans that are being implemented on campus.
(Students contributing to this article are: Mariana Aguinaco, Sarah Hoffman, Yessica Imm, Lubna Qadri and Sarah Rosa. Students contributing to the video are: Roger Garza, John Ngyuen, Natasha Wilson, Kellie Isola)