Story by Pam Higginbotham. Photos by Jack Helms.
Many pet owners in North Texas are regularly faced with the difficult decision to either feed their pets or feed themselves. Natural disaster, job loss, illness, fixed incomes, and other situations can lead to having to make the heartbreaking choice to let go of a beloved pet. However, Don’t Forget to Feed Me is helping provide these pet owners with food for their animals and, more importantly, giving them a chance to stay together.
Back in 2008, when the economic crisis was causing extreme hardship, Terry Woodfin and Kim Pearson teamed up to keep pets with their families. “They saw a gap in services because there were no pet food banks in the area,” says Maria Koegl, the operations manager for Don’t Forget to Feed Me (DF2FM). DF2FM launched their initiative with a Valentine pet food drive in February 2009 while working through the Tarrant Area Food Bank. They applied to become their own nonprofit, and the organization quickly grew. In 2010, DF2FM began a partnership with Community Food Bank of Fort Worth to distribute the pet food they had collected. Other organizations began to partner with them as well, including Community Storehouse in Keller and Mansfield Mission Center in Mansfield to distribute food to pet owners in need. By 2018, they had outgrown their office space at the Community Food Bank and were able to move into their very own facility.
Maria’s journey with DF2FM began when she met DF2FM co-founder Terry Woodfin at their information booth at Canton in the City. While working at an animal hospital in Colleyville, Maria had coordinated a food drive which benefitted DF2FM. She kept in contact with Terry and in 2011 was asked to become their volunteer office manager. She happily accepted this role and was glad to be a part of DF2FM. She went on to serve as steering committee chair, fund development chair, and served on the board of directors. This past April, she became the group’s operations manager.
Maria did not have an easy childhood, but it was made better with loving grandparents who gave of their time, love, and resources. “Giving to others was not so much on my radar, but growing up how we did helped me understand how much my grandparents made sure we had something. As we grew up, we were aware that there are people out there needing help. You never know what battle someone is fighting.” Maria recalls that she first became aware of social justice when she was navigating a new life in Texas after her father passed away. She took a Psychology of Women course at University of North Texas that “changed my life,” she says. “We watched Iron Jawed Angels and Jean Kilbourn’s series called Killing Us Softly about how women are portrayed in media and advertising. Also, how people of color are portrayed as well, and how it continues to hold people down. It was the deepest, most amazing class. I had a lot of friends who told me ‘Wow, you really changed. Like, what’s going on? You’re not fun anymore.’ But I had a purpose now.”
When Maria moved up to take on the operations position, the timing was perfect for her. She was ready to take a risk and do something professionally that she loved. Maria says, “I feel like this is the best thing I have ever done and all these years I have been waiting to work here. It is a joy working here and I almost forget that I am working. I am even glad when writing grants, which are really hard, because I know it is for a good reason.” As operations manager, Maria also does “all the day-to-day boring things that no one thinks about, but they are not so boring. It’s all for a purpose. Little things, like the stretch wrap we use on our pallets to make sure they are secure, are so expensive. We don’t like for our money to not go towards food, but we, of course, need other supplies. That is where I found the little boring things are sometimes items that big companies will provide to help to support people.” Maria has become very resourceful in finding office supplies, too. She found an organization called the Welman Project that accepts donations of office supplies and then invites nonprofits to “shop” there for free for what they need. This saves money that can then be used towards pet food.
DF2FM is now interviewing board members for next year. Maria tries to impress on candidates that they are not just joining a board that meets once a month, votes on agenda items, and leaves. “We are a family. Everyone is so respectful and we all have so much fun together. We are people from different walks of life, and we all just love animals. We can be so different otherwise, but we come together on this. It shows just because you don’t walk the same path, you find something that brings you together,” Maria says. “I’m seeing all these different professions and different people come together, and it is like a whole other life I would have never touched on if I had not started volunteering .”
One of the DF2FM board members, Patti Chiaramonte, started a fund named after one of her dogs she lost called the Maverick Fund. Donations to this fund go to help pet owners who experience catastrophic events such as tornadoes, house fires and hurricanes. These type of events leave pet owners without the basic resources to take care of their pets. “Families sometimes anticipate only evacuating for a couple of days but then the energy grid for the whole city gets knocked out. Sometimes they are left without any resources for their pets and that is where the Maverick Fund helps,” explains Maria. “We are able to provide food and other items that may seem like boring necessities to some but are life changing for these families and their pets. It’s an honor to have this fund that helps people keep their companion and best friend. Yes, the one that’s by your side, no matter what.”
“It doesn’t have to be a natural disaster for it to be a disaster for you personally, right?” Maria says. “So the people we help on a regular basis, I’m sure more than we will ever know, are going through their own disaster, and we are helping them keep their family together.”
For Maria, it is inspiring to watch North Texas residents come together to meet the overlooked need for pet food in the metro area. “Watching people keep kindness in their heart while they are struggling and still continuing to do good in the world is uplifting. People can easily say ‘life didn’t go well for me’ and just throw in the towel. It wasn’t fair that I didn’t get a fair start in life but we just have to keep going and try to be kind to each other and help in any way we can. It makes me want to help even more because no matter how bad anyone has it, someone has it worse.”
The moving stories of those helped by DF2FM keep the staff, board members, and volunteers focused on making a difference daily in the lives of pet owners. Their dedication provides an alternative to surrendering or abandoning animals due to lack of financial resources during difficult times and keeps families together. The gap in services, seen ten years ago by Terry and Kim, has been narrowed by the passion and hard work of the DF2FM team that is united by their love of animals and the desire to make a difference.