Homelessness in the United States impacts 565,000 people. Of the homeless population, approximately five to ten percent share their lives with a pet. It can be extremely easy – however incorrect it is – to cast judgment on others, particularly those whose living standards don’t match what society presents as acceptable.
In the summer of 2013, Betheny Green found herself in that position – judging a homeless man and his dog.
We had just sat down [outside] with our food when a shirtless, raggedy-looking young homeless man with his companion dog (wearing a home-made rope collar that was actually trailing behind him) sat down on a park bench not too far from us. The dog sat at the young man’s feet, tail thumping happily between his legs, looking lovingly at his Master….The man had dreadlocks. They were both dirty. They were both skinny. I immediately started to stereotype…to judge.
Before Betheny and her then 17-year-old son, Jacob, could even take a bite to eat, the kind and unexpected act of Betheny’s son inspired what has become one of Louisville, KY’s most needed and appreciated organizations.
Without even a word my son got up and took his lunch over to the young man and offered it to him. Fist bumps ensued. He sat and talked with him as if he was his equal. He showed kindness and compassion to to him and treated him no different than he would have one of his friends. The man accepted the food and ever so humbly thanked Jacob. To my complete surprise, before he took ONE bite of the food he was given he tore half off and gave it to his dog. He fed his dog first.
After witnessing what was an instinctual act for this man – feeding his dog before he fed himself – Betheny’s “eyes were opened and so was [her] heart.” Being privy to this gesture of love and compassion became the catalyst for Betheny to create the 501(c)(3) grassroots organization My Dog Eats First (MDEF), a non–profit that “serves the underserved and homeless with pets in the greater Louisville area.”
In what is a very simple sentence, MDEF’s reason for being is summed up perfectly:
“Everyone deserves someone that makes them look forward to tomorrow.”
Now it’s not only those who MDEF serves who are looking forward to tomorrow. In an official press release, MDEF announced that as of April 1, 2016, they would be moving their operations to MDEF’s very first brick and mortar location, a 9,000 square foot former gymnasium in Louisville’s West End area. To put into perspective how much growth this is for MDEF, it should be noted that last year, MDEF was excited to have a 15×20 storage area to use for its operations.
Prior to moving to this location, MDEF operated its Waggle Wednesday – which is where pets of the underserved and homeless are provided with pet food, supplies, basic vaccinations and arrange for spay/neuter services – out of a parking lot, even with inclement weather. As Betheny shared with BarkPost:
“The hardest thing about what we do is to witness the suffering that is homelessness….Those that we serve LIVE in that environment every day of their lives. It’s humbling. It makes you view your life in a completely different way.”
Waggle Wednesdays are now at MDEF’s new location, which has the added bonus of being located directly on a bus line. In preparation for their move, MDEF spent the month prior “making sure that everyone [they] serve knows where [they] are moving to and [are] working to make sure that those who do not have transportation are prepared.” And if those who MDEF serves should ever need anything but are unable to make it to Waggle Wednesday, Betheny told BarkPost that they already have a solution.
“Our homeless friends have our office cell and often call or text when they need anything and we deliver to them as needed. We are committed to doing whatever we must to make sure our homeless with pets are cared for to the best of our ability.”
MDEF’s first Waggle Wednesday at their new location was held on April 6th and it was a touching and beautiful sight to behold. Over 50 clients were served with the recently cleaned gymnasium (courtesy of an MDEF–held “Cleaning Paw–ty”) packed with volunteers; the homeless and their beloved pets; dog collars, harnesses and leashes; bags upon bags of dog food and even freshly-popped popcorn which happened to come from the vintage popcorn maker left in MDEF’s new space.
Commenting on a response on one of the Facebook photos posted of Waggle Wednesday in its new space, Betheny said:
I have so much to tell…so many beautiful stories. So much promise.
With such tremendous growth comes the opportunity to expand MDEF’s services. Betheny envisions entirely new programs for MDEF, ones that can positively impact the homeless and their pets.
We are currently planning dog–behavior training classes [and] educational seminars regarding pet care in a ‘pay as you can or what you can’ environment. We will never turn any person away for any services for lack of being able to pay. We also currently partner with three other grass–roots homeless outreach programs — Fed With Faith, The Forgotten Louisville and Exit 0 — who we distribute pet food [and] supplies to them to have on hand….We have three volunteer vets that work on a rotating schedule to provide basic vet care (vaccinations and licensing) once per month. We were the recipients of a small grant through Best Friends [Animal Society] that helps with rabies vaccinations and licensing.
…[T]he exposure has helped spread [MDEF’s] message of kindness, compassion and acceptance not only here in Louisville but all over the United States….I did it with the hope that I was able to convey ONE THING which was that, regardless of wealth or the lack of we ALL deserve to be loved…to feel love. And whether that comes from a human or a companion animal it[‘]s not our place to judge. We should all lift each other up in whatever way we can.
To top off the experience, Rachael Ray donated 3,300 pounds of her dog food label, Nutrish, which will undoubtedly feed many dogs through MDEF’s Waggle Wednesday.
As any organization who deals with such sensitive topics, MDEF is no stranger to having to deal with very difficult realities and not only that, but work to create a solution. When asked by BarkPost what has been one of her most memorable experiences as a result of MDEF, Betheny recalled one particular man named Ricky and his incredible devotion to his sweet dog, Buddy.
We have so many stories that we could share, but if I had to pick one it would be that we were able to help a terminally ill homeless man named Ricky who REFUSED medical treatment because he would have to surrender his 12–year old dog that he had never been separated from. We boarded the dog so he could go to the hospital. When they determined there was nothing that they could do to save him and gave him [six] months to live[,] we reunited [Ricky and Buddy] and placed them in an apartment where they could live our the remainder of his life together. That was February of 2015. In September of 2015[,] Ricky passed and MDEF paid to have Ricky cremated, as were his wishes. Owen Funeral Home here in Jeffersontown donated their services so we could have a memorial service for Ricky. Buddy remains alive with friends, just as Ricky wanted.
In a perfect world, Betheny envisions not only the underserved and homeless and their pets but all humans and animals being “treated with kindness, dignity and compassion.” We here at BarkPost would say that with MDEF continuing its mission to “provide pet food, supplies, basic vaccinations and spay/neuter services….in a judgement[–]free environment,” a perfect world is closer to becoming a reality.
MDEF’s new location is 2509 Portland Avenue, Louisville, KY 40212. To see all of the volunteer opportunities available with MDEF, click here and then select the “Sign–Up Genius” button located on the right–hand side of the page. To donate to MDEF, you may do so by clicking here.
Featured image via My Dog Eats First – Louisville, KY/Facebook