Labor of Love

For the Love of Paws helps seniors in need keep their beloved companions by their sides

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Apollo, a 5-year-old kitty, is a resident at a Fellsmere barn-turned-cat cottage operated by For the Love of Paws. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Apollo, a 5-year-old kitty, is a resident at a Fellsmere barn-turned-cat cottage operated by For the Love of Paws. Photo by Kelly Rogers

When community needs arise and we see people in dire straits, we may think, “If only I had the time, the money, the space and the expertise to take on all of that burden and make a difference.” Many people will donate, but few throw themselves wholeheartedly into filling those needs while seeking to uncover more.  

One such person is Ted Pankiewicz, co-founder of For the Love of Paws. His daughter-in-law Jess and her husband, Ted Jr., had planned to establish a nonprofit to help pets and people, but she passed away suddenly of a rare immune disorder called Devic’s disease early in 2013. “I discussed Jess’ intentions with my wife and son. I reminded them that I’ve failed at retiring twice,” says Pankiewicz, a former K-9 officer from New Jersey. 

They started in their garage with the goal of keeping Jess’ dream alive. Just six short years later, the venture has outgrown its headquarters twice. For the Love of Paws now distributes, free of charge, more than 10,000 pounds of pet food per month to 18 locations in Indian River and Brevard counties and to the Senior Resource Association for its Meals on Wheels program. 

“It was volunteers who first noticed clients giving their food away to their pets, deciding they would rather go hungry than let their pets suffer,” says Karen Deigl, president and CEO of SRA. “All of our clients are in a crisis situation, COVID or not,” she notes. 

Pankiewicz had seen this kind of thing before, during his time as a general manager at Park Place, a manufactured home community in Sebastian. “People were on tight budgets,” he says. “While waiting for their Social Security checks, they might run out of funds to feed the pet. These seniors are from the silent generation. Some are World War II veterans who often want to apologize for needing help. I tell them that is what we are here for.” 

Ted Pankiewicz takes a call while Mannix, his loyal assistant, keeps an eye on the door. Photo by Martina Tannery
Ted Pankiewicz takes a call while Mannix, his loyal assistant, keeps an eye on the door. Photo by Martina Tannery

The group now delivers 40 to 50 bags of pet food every Monday to SRA’s Meals on Wheels Program, where it gets distributed to the pet-owning seniors they serve. Many of these seniors have outlived family and friends, and the pet is their cherished companion. “From dealing with a critical illness to the loss of a loved one, dogs and cats provide comfort and healing attributes,” says Deigl. “We also see how pets can positively switch the focus from seniors’ own problems and illnesses to that of caring for their pet who needs them.”

At first, this was an entirely family-run affair. Pankiewicz’s wife, Cookie, son Ted Jr., and grandson Hunter spent their time and money buying and bagging pet food for seniors in need. Now they have 25 to 30 regular volunteers and have expanded their outreach in a big way. “On Monday mornings, we take pet food to 13 local food banks in Indian River and Brevard counties,” says Pankiewicz. “Then we have a location in Fellsmere open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for families to pick up pet food there.” 

In addition to providing pet food for seniors needing help to feed their pets, the group’s mission statement includes caring for pets whose senior owners have become ill or have passed away, and following the wishes of the senior owner, whether that means housing them at the 5-acre sanctuary, offering their own homes and office space to house elderly cats, or adopting out animals whose owners approve of that option. “Our desks and computer keyboards are always decorated by cat hair, and sometimes a cat or two,” Pankiewicz says.

For the Love of Paws is expanding beyond the original vision, partly due to needs arising from COVID isolation but, even more so, just because the need presents itself. “We had a woman call us crying that she wanted to check into a program to escape physical abuse, but was terrified her boyfriend would hurt her cat,” says Pankiewicz. “Since the cat was not allowed in the program’s housing, we took the cat for her. When she gets on her feet and gets a job, she can have her pet back. She’s not a senior citizen, but how do you say no to that?” 

The group will also transport a pet for veterinary care, as they did for Reese, a large shepherd mix in need of a checkup and vaccinations, whose owner is disabled. Pankiewicz would also like to start an in-home euthanasia program to address a need he saw firsthand. “A couple of months ago I got a call from two ladies who lived in a second-floor apartment. Their old dog, a big mixed breed, had passed away in the night and they couldn’t lift him. My son and I took him to the Humane Society and arranged for cremation.”

Ted Pankiewicz Jr. has plans to expand the cat cottage in Fellsmere with a second barn to house surrendered cats. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Ted Pankiewicz Jr. has plans to expand the cat cottage in Fellsmere with a second barn to house surrendered cats. Photo by Kelly Rogers

While Pankiewicz’s energy is seemingly limitless, he credits his volunteers for all the group’s success. Claudia Martino has been with For the Love of Paws since the beginning. She and her sister started bringing pet food to various food banks, where one new volunteer wondered aloud if they shouldn’t do more for the people themselves. “I told her, ‘Helping pets is helping people, too.’ Many of these folks have only the pet as companionship, and that pet is their reason for living,” Martino says. “Ted gets calls in the middle of the night because someone with a medical emergency won’t leave the pet to get into the ambulance, so he rushes over.” 

Martino now works in the adjacent office and can sometimes hear Pankiewicz on the phone. “The things he’ll agree to, and the way he calms people in crisis, is really touching. There is nothing Ted won’t do.” Martino says motivation is not a problem for volunteers. “At one volunteer meeting, he played some voicemails from people we had helped. Their stories were very moving. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

Some of the happy endings are told by adopters who take on shell-shocked pets that have recently lost their owners. Lacey Cox was alerted to a social media post calling for a foster for Snoopy, a beagle whose owner, a Navy veteran, was undergoing serious surgery. “Ted took care of everything,” says Cox. “He arranged for Snoopy to meet my two beagles, Mason and Jack. For the Love of Paws paid for the neutering and vaccinations, too.” The beagle’s owner did not survive the surgery, and when Pankiewicz called to tell Cox this news, they discussed whether Snoopy would stay with her family permanently. “Do I really need three dogs?” she said to him. “Then I turned to see my daughter holding Snoopy, tears streaming down her face. We immediately agreed to keep him, and he has fit right in ever since.” 

Cox’s interactions with Pankiewicz and his group were positive ones throughout the process. “I think what they do is really great. They place animals responsibly; Ted did his homework on me before I adopted, and he stays in touch to see if he can help,” she says. “He’s very transparent about what he needs from the community and what he provides to the community.” 

Hunter Pankiewicz, son of Ted Jr., has hopes of taking the nonprofit statewide to help more people and their pets. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Hunter Pankiewicz, son of Ted Jr., has hopes of taking the nonprofit statewide to help more people and their pets. Photo by Kelly Rogers

Later, Cox learned about a 10-year-old dachshund named Skye, whose owner, a former fighter pilot, had passed away. “That dog had been everything to this man,” she says. By this time, her oldest beagle was gone, so she offered to foster Skye and has since adopted him. “When we first brought Skye home, he was mopey, understandably, but to see him blossom is so rewarding,” Cox says. “It’s a very warm and fuzzy feeling.”  

Expansion is very much on Pankiewicz’s mind. The group currently leases a facility in Fellsmere for offices as well as the housing and distribution of all the pet food. At the sanctuary space, another cat cottage is being built, and Pankiewicz is eyeing acreage with a house where the team can move its offices and distribution, and that is still in a convenient location for clients. “My son is involved on a daily basis, and my grandson Hunter enjoys the work, so the future is theirs,” he says. “Hunter wants to expand statewide within 10 years,” he adds proudly.

Pankiewicz’s instinct is to solve any problem that arises. “That’s what we do: Find a need; fill it,” he says. “We recently found out that Indian River County had only two pet oxygen kits for 15 firehouses. We raised funds and bought 30 of them.” 

For the Love of Paws has needs of its own, including cat food, leashes, collars, medicines, cat trees, small dog crates, pet beds and, of course, funding. Find them here. “We’re geared toward seniors,” Pankiewicz says, “but we’ll help anybody.” `

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