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Kim O'Konis, right, takes a picture of Gwen Jones and her dog "Junior" who just got a new coat from Kim, who runs Central Massachusetts Kibble Kitchen. The nonprofit provides pet food and supplies to families in need.

WORCESTER (AP) >> As the economy struggles and more and more find it hard to make ends meet, new victims of hard times emerge, including the family pet, which is often surrendered because they can't be supported any more.

Local resident Kim O'Konis founded the Central Massachusetts Kibble Kitchen in January to help financially struggling families get food for their dogs and cats.

"I really want to make a difference for pets and families in Central Massachusetts," she said. "No one should have to make the decision to turn their pet over to a shelter because of temporary financial hardship. These are the times families need the comfort of a pet the most. My goal is to help take the burden from the families and keep pets in their homes."

Kibble Kitchen is a 501(c)3 registered nonprofit charity that operates only on donations from other organizations or pet food stores. The program also offers fittings for harnesses, leashes and collars for clients who can't manage it by themselves.

"I basically operate the program in three distinct ways," Ms. O'Konis said. "First, I work with various local food pantries, where I bring in food and they distribute it to their clients. I also do home deliveries for people who are either disabled or don't have transportation. They have to fill in an application to show that they qualify for the program, either by being on food stamps, receiving Social Security or Disability. Thirdly, I do live distribution days, where I load up my van with supplies and travel to food kitchens prior to meal time. There, people line up and get the food and other supplies they need for their animals."


Clients who enroll in the program are expected to take a certain amount of responsibility to make sure their pets are healthy as well as ensuring that they won't contribute to overpopulation.

"I do require people to spay or neuter their animals within two months of registering for the program," Ms. O'Konis said. "As I realize many of these clients don't have the resources to do this, I am working with a couple of other programs, notably ACE Fitchburg Animal Care and Education of Central Massachusetts. As they recently received a grant from the Community Foundation of Fitchburg, they can perform many of these services for free. I also work with the Luke and Lily Lerner Spay/Neuter Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. We schedule appointments for that school, where clients can get their female dogs spayed, as well as taking advantage of the free student program. Additionally, they offer vaccination clinics at the soup kitchens. They reached out to me because I have a connection with the clients and their pets. Basically, I bring the people and they bring the vaccines. This is a good way to increase the number of animals which are receiving their rabies and distemper shots."

In just the last 10 months, Kibble Kitchen has already distributed over 70,000 pounds of kibble through live site distributions, home deliveries and food pantry deliveries. Ms. O'Konis said that she also visits tent encampments to deliver food to pet owners in the homeless community. Food is provided to pet owners on a rotating schedule in dropsites in Framingham, Worcester, Devens, Hudson, Fitchburg and Clinton.

Ms. O'Konis said there is a real need for volunteers, as none of the food is distributed in its original packaging. The kibble has to be unpacked and stored in smaller quantities, with the label designating its source on the front. As the program distributes 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of food a week, this adds up to a lot of work.

Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester),