Columbus charity forges community service through low-income pet aid
In some cases, it’s just a small bag of kibble.
But what people take away from their interaction with Faithful Forgotten Best Friends is much larger—and longer lasting.
At its core, FFBF is a simple one-to-one charity concept: food, veterinary care, vaccinations, and microchipping for the pets of homeless and low-income citizens in Columbus.
But, just spending time immersed among their myriad dedicated volunteers, you see that FFBF is not only providing a humanitarian service—but one that improves life for all animals in the city and for the humans inspired to aid its cause.
“I always tell people when they volunteer here that it’s gonna cost you.”
That’s Connie Swackhammer, one of the cofounders of Faithful Forgotten Best Friends, and that’s her constant joke to new team members. What she means: you’ll be so energized and driven by the mission that often, volunteers end up buying goods to contribute to their clients.
That mission started with an organic need noticed by many volunteers out on Meals on Wheels runs. Many elderly clients were sharing their meager food with their pets, which motivated volunteers to start bringing donated pet food along on their runs.
Fast forward several years and several hundred—if not thousands—of lives have changed as a direct result of FFBF. Around 9:30 a.m. every Tuesday, Swackhammer and her tight-knit group of volunteers set up shop behind Holy Family Church in Franklinton, and receive droves of people looking for the things they need for their companion animals. (They also visit the city’s homeless camps on a weekly basis.)
Fourth-year veterinary students from Ohio State University Veterinary College, lead by board certified veterinary doctors, including Dr. Kim West, the president of FFBF, provide basic care to cats and dogs. Food is distributed, along with leashes, harnesses, toys, treats, and anything else their little furry hearts could desire. A brand new partnership with Blue Buffalo brand natural pet food will provide literal tons of food for their clients, freeing up a huge portion of their budget to expand their medical care service. FFBF doesn’t have a stream of income, like rescues and pounds do. A yearly golf outing raises the lion’s share of their funding for the year; it’s all 100-percent volunteer driven, and no one draws a salary, so all funds go directly to service. And that service isn’t just for the homeless—it’s people on fixed incomes; disabled veterans, the elderly. Which is perhaps the most important part of the mission: FFBF turns no one away for a lack of ability to pay for food or care.
Swackhammer is well aware of how quickly the descent into homeless can happen, and she also is keeping close watch on how the rapid redevelopment of the city is applying pressure to an already delicate affordable housing situation. The South End, where she is currently eyeing a new location, is one such example.
“There are homes there now that are half a million dollars on Parsons,” she said. “I’m glad for them, but I’m also wondering about people there who can’t afford the rent. So I’m going to get more clients, and I don’t know how were going to deal with the increase of people who need help … but somehow we always have.”
Most people that live and work in the city are blind to the plight of low income and homeless families and individuals. The legalities of navigating the city as a homeless person encourages secrecy, and the shame pinned to being poor keeps people from asking for help. Often it’s a quick slide that starts from a job loss or injury. Soon people find themselves on the street with only their faithful best friends to cling to.
While the literal aim of FFBF is to make sure such people and their pets are not “forgotten,” Swackhammer admits that their organization can also offer education that helps shore up that blind spot.
“When you think of homeless [people]—or at least I did—you think of someone who has issues with drugs or drink, or perhaps just attitude issues. What I’ve found is that a lot of them are just flat-out out of a job,” she said. “They lost their job so they can’t make their car payment, so they can’t get to work. Next thing you know, theyre not able to pay their rent. They hit up their family, they hit up their friends. It’s just the perfect spiral. And then they’re on the street, and once you’re on the streets you can’t get a job because your clothes are dirty, your hair is dirty.”
Now that she’s meeting people in such straits on a weekly basis, they and their animals have become her life’s work. They’re now friends and clients.
“It’s virtually impossible for me to take dog food into a camp and not take something for the person,” she said.
Damien and his large bully breed Cain were there on the Tuesday we observed FFBF, waiting on a vet appointment for Cain and food for him and Damien’s three other dogs. His respect has grown over the five years he’s known Swackhammer, who he calls a “fighter.”
“They’re caring,” he said. “Sincerity is what’s important. They’re not doing this for a paycheck. They’re taking time out of their lives to come do this because they care.”
Beyond just caring for the animals and their owners, she wants to enlighten those unfamiliar with the everyday positive impact these pets have for their owners. When you’re still trying to navigate the daily challenges of life without a home, or with a dangerously low income, unconditional love carries an immeasurable value.
“The pet doesn’t care if you have a house. The pet doesn’t care if you have an income. The pet cares about being with you. For a lot of people, I think the pet helps them maintain their sanity. I’ve seen people dig holes to live in, I’ve seen people live in trees. The lucky ones have a sleeping bag and a place to lay their head. Their pets are with them. They are snuggled by their side for warmth and protection. In the homeless population, that animal is their friend, that animal is their protector, and something that brings them joy. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have some kind of joy brought to your life. It’s bad enough that their life has gone to that point. If they’ve brought an animal with them, or found an animal, I don’t blame them.”
Keeping people out of homeless shelters may be beyond the reach of an organization like FFBF. They can, however, do their part to keep more animals from being on the streets. Last summer alone they spayed or neutered 350 animals.
“We don’t want any more animals out there that aren’t able to be taken care of. So if they already have a few animals, the first thing we do is figure out whos gonna get fixed, so were not adding to the population of animals that could potentially be homeless or end up in a shelter.”
FFBF also microchips animals with their contact information so they can get their animals back to citizens if they have no address or phone.
FFBF doesn’t just touch the lives of those receiving assistance to care for their four-legged family members. The volunteers from those coming to lend a hand, to the vet students recruited from OSU, all speak to the transformative experience of helping the most helpless among us cultivate the most ancient of human animal relationships.
Grace Hoagland, a volunteer with a non-profit background, feels an even greater call to help FFBF than your average pet charity.
“If you have your own pets at home and they’re healthy and taken care of, you make them dinner each night, and then you see these animals. These owners love their animals just as much. But the way they’re able to provide for them is so much different. I think the feeling of the need to help them is greater. Especially if you are an animal lover or have had family members that have had struggles with their animals. This is one of the only organizations in the United States that provides free veterinary care on a regular basis to low income communities. There is always going to be a continuous need.”
That need is clearly omnipresent, but there are some that question whether an animal in the possession of a person with challenges taking care of themselves is in the best situation.
Dr. Michael Barrie, a former zoo veterinarian known in the FFBF community as “Dr. Mike,” thinks that’s a gross oversimplification.
“People’s lives are more complicated than that. Certainly these animals bring a lot of joy to people’s lives. If we can help out on this aspect, I think that’s a really good thing. I don’t have any misgivings about these people having pets. And the ones we see are responsible of feeling enough to come here. They use the service and are typically grateful for the service we provide, so its rewarding in that aspect.”
Dr. Mike points out that the community at-large—animal lovers and the animals they love—benefit from FFBF’s service, too.
“If these animals aren’t protected with these vaccinations, their at risk of getting rabies or getting viral diseases dogs and cats get. Having this service, they don’t have to worry about those things. For instance, distemper in dogs is highly contagious. If there was a large population of unvaccinated dogs around, it could spread around the community.”
What FFBF does spread around the community is hope.
The people at FFBF know the stories and the struggles of those who live their lives on the threadbare edge of the city. And work daily to connect those in need to those willing to provide.
It’s their mission and their service that helps stabilize a constant—one bit of meaningful companionship in daily lives filled with uncertainty. That constant effort nourishes the souls of what sadly, is often Columbus’s forgotten populace.
All it takes is a bit of unconditional love—and little bags of kibble.
Faithful Forgotten Best Friends operates every Tuesday from the back of the Holy Family Church Parish Center at 584 W Broad St. in Franklinton. Food is distributed the first and third Tuesday of the month, and veterinary care is available by appointment after proof of income level is established. To get involved or donate, visit ffbf-columbus.org.