The Pongo Fund
Caps Award-winning First Year
The Pongo Fund Pet Food Bank is wrapping a very big first year this month. November 8th, the young nonprofit, which has quickly become a vital community resource, celebrates its one-year anniversary, and Larry Chusid, Pongo Fund’s creator and director, will receive the Spirit of Portland Humanitarian Award in a ceremony hosted by the City of Portland. The year began with Chusid and The Pongo Fund receiving the Veterinary Service Award of Excellence from the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, and the months between were rife with perhaps the greatest rewards of all: thousands of lives lifted, honored and served.
But before there were neatly warehoused pallets of pet food, before the community accolades, and long before there was a Pongo Fund, there was a man named Larry and a dog named Pongo.
Chusid grew up in Portland, attended PSU, and by 2009 had enjoyed many years as a successful entrepreneur. In 2001 his constant companion, Pongo, was diagnosed with acute kidney disease at age 12. Chusid set out to enjoy every precious day with his beloved canine.
He didn’t know how long Pongo would live after his diagnosis. “Traditional veterinary care wasn’t helping,” says Chusid. With a grim prognosis and little time left, Chusid and his partner tried changing Pongo’s diet. Success!
Cooking special meals and finding just the right pet food wasn’t easy, but like so many pet parents, they did it happily, and would have readily done more for the gift of keeping their best friend healthy and happy as long as possible. In October 2007, they finally bid their friend goodbye — Pongo had lived to be almost 19.
Pongo on his 18th birthday - Jan. 1989 - Oct. 9, 2007Just a few weeks after Pongo’s passing, Chusid happened to meet two homeless pups with their people under the Morrison Bridge. Mindful of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Chusid asked if there was anything he could help with. Dog food, they said. Really good dog food, Chusid thought.
Chusid learned from the people under the bridge that they often shared human provisions from shelters and food banks in order to give their pets food. By this time he knew a great deal about the the nutritional needs of dogs, and that in this case neither human nor canine nutritional needs were being met. He returned to the bridge the next day with good quality dog food and pet supplies for the approaching winter.
Chusid soon became a popular fixture in the homeless community, showing up with his car loaded with bags of quality pet food. After two years of running what was essentially a one-man pet food pantry, Chusid realized the job had become bigger than him.
The seed planted during Chusid’s life with Pongo was nurtured by the conversations under the bridge — a seed that, as it turned out, would grow into the largest pet food bank in Oregon.
As it happened, Chusid met the owner of Canidae All Natural Pet Foods at a pet event in May 2009. The chance meeting sent Chusid away with the heady realization that he had just received a commitment from Canidae to donate an initial supply of pet food — valued at $125,000. Shortly after, Chusid received the same donation from Dogswell, another pet food company with a reputation for high-quality food.
The law firm of Holland & Knight donated time and expertise to help Pongo file as a nonprofit. Then, in a few short weeks, Chusid had permission from the Portland Development Commission to use the then idle former headquarters of the Action Sports Network. There, just across from the Oregon Convention Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Chusid opened The Pongo Fund’s doors for the first time in November, 2009.
"When we opened that first day we probably had more volunteers than people,” says Chusid, remembering. Forty families left that day knowing that for the next month they wouldn’t have to worry about their best friend’s next meal.
Chusid knows from experience what a relief it is to not have to worry about the health of four-legged family members. “The pet is the soul of the family,” he says. “If you feed the pet, you feed the family.”
Now, nearly a year after opening, Chusid reports the food bank’s “total distribution probably impacts some 2,000 families per month.”
That means The Pongo Fund, by the end of 2010, will have provided some 1 million meals to hungry dogs and cats in need.
A number like that provides a big picture — a really big picture — of what The Pongo Fund has become. But the devil is in the details, and sustaining the supply of high-quality food is the greatest challenge; of course, the initial $250,000 in food donations is long gone.
Our food is now secured through a mix of food and cash donations,” says Chusid. Because of the sheer quantity of food required, the need “greatly exceeds the individual bags of food that the community can reasonably donate to keep us supplied,” Chusid says. “We buy the majority of the food that we use, but we buy in large volume with extremely large discounts, similar to the Oregon Food Bank.”
For example, Pongo can buy several bags of Canidae dog food for the retail price of just one bag. “Thanks to the generosity of our food partners, we can buy quality food at a cost far, far less than lower-quality foods,” Chusid explains. This is the simple equation that leads to everyone winning: pets, humans and food banks.
His many years of experience in the the private sector taught Chusid that before the doors opened, the distribution puzzle had to be solved. “We’re dialed in like a for-profit business with our distribution network,” he says, “with several dozen regional food banks, partner agencies and programs to distribute emergency pet food . . . throughout Oregon and SW Washington.”
The distribution channels also extend to human food banks, because, as Chusid explains, “it’s important to provide food to human organizations so that people don’t have to choose between feeding themselves and feeding their pets.”
With the logistics solved, Chusid focused on the money. “My experience has always been based on using my own dollars,” he says about his private-sector background. “And The Pongo Fund does not spend money carelessly.”
From the beginning, Chusid’s goal for Pongo was zero administrative overhead. To help make that possible, the PDC lets the organization use what would otherwise be empty space while awaiting redevelopment.
To further reduce overhead, the entire staff — from board members to greeters — are all volunteers. There are no paid employees. As the full time director, Chusid himself volunteers 70 hours weekly, and the total number of volunteer hours logged each month is just shy of 500.
For Chusid, it’s a simple equation. “If I were paid we’d have less money to pay it forward.”
My whole life has changed,” says Chusid. “It’s not for everyone, but for me it’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.” There’s no heat in the warehouse, no A/C. The water from the taps isn’t drinkable. And yet, as Chusid says, it’s “just one of the happiest places to be.”
If you stop by Pongo on the second or fourth Sunday morning of the month, you’ll see people start to form a line at about 9:30. Friends say “Hi,” and volunteers are everywhere, checking on regular clients, getting to know first-time visitors, working to make people feel comfortable.
Once seated in the waiting area, clients complete paperwork, chat, and check out photos of Pongo’s friends on the wall. If they have health questions about their pet they can check in with Dr. Emilio DeBess, Oregon’s Public Health Veterinarian, who regularly stops by. Though The Fund doesn’t have clinic facilities, DeBess is a great resource for concerned pet parents.
After an initial consultation with clients, volunteers match the food on hand with the need. After filling an order, distribution volunteers check with each client before they leave. “We want to make sure they understand what they’re getting in terms of quality and what effects they might see,” Chusid explains. Switching pet food can be tricky, and volunteers work to ensure there are no unpleasant surprises.
Complementing the wall photos of Pongo’s puppy friends are framed partner logos. For Chusid, all of these photos are a reminder of why he does what he does and who made it possible. “Without Canidae, Dogswell, the Portland Development Commission, Papé [who donates the forklift], our volunteers . . . ” Chusid’s gesture indicates many others, “we wouldn’t be here.”
This writer met Chusid just over a year ago, as he was soul-searching the question of whether to undertake the creation of The Pongo Fund. Now, asking how he felt about it all, about how things have gone, he replied, “It went the way it was supposed to go. I think we can tell by the number of tails wagging.”
On Nov. 15th, Canidae will launch their Buy One, Give Some! Help Feed a Hungry Pet For the Holidays pet food drive. For every 35 & 44 lb. bag of All Life Stage food bought at participating premium dog food supply stores, Canidae will donate another 5 lb. bag to The Pongo Fund.
ThePongoFund.org * 503-939-7555.
Jake Faris is a freelance writer who's worn many different hats, including a hardhat and the 8-point hat of a police officer. Jake and his wife Charity live with their three cats and four dogs in Beaverton. The whole pack moved to Portland from Wenatchee, Washington, years ago. Now a dedicated Oregonian, Jake finds new reasons to love his adopted state very day. Contact him here.