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Animal nonprofit comes to the rescue of pets and their needy owners in Wyandanch

Coordinator of Almost Home Training Wheels, Rebecca Herlihy, spoke to Newsday on Tuesday about the importance of the animal rescue group in economically distressed communities to help owners with food and medical care for their pets. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

An animal rescue group that provides food and medical care for pets whose owners are struggling said it is seeing a sharp increase in need since COVID-19.

The Patchogue-based nonprofit Almost Home Animal Rescue, which was formed in 2007, has a community outreach program called Training Wheels where volunteers go out into economically distressed communities to help owners with food and medical care for their pets.

The group has seen a more than 20% increase in the need for dog and cat food since the pandemic started, said Ashley Buroker, manager for the rescue.

"We’re really getting inundated with calls from pet owners who are unable to feed their pets or provide medical care, due to the pandemic," Buroker said. "We’re seeing a lot of people struggling financially."

The group is also seeing an increase in owner-surrenders of pets, currently getting six to eight per month. Some can no longer afford the responsibility or have had to move to housing that is not pet-friendly, she said, while some owners have died from COVID-19.

The group has gone out weekly to Brentwood, Central Islip, Bellport, North Amityville and other Suffolk communities to distribute food and other pet necessities, Buroker said. It works primarily in Wyandanch, which the nonprofit said had the most need and makes up more than half of Training Wheels’ 500 animal clients. To participate, owners must agree to spay or neuter their pet, a service Almost Home provides for free, even bringing the animals to the vet.

Training Wheels has about a dozen volunteers, with some out almost every day in Wyandanch, often talking to people on the street about pet care and training.

"The idea is to teach them so that they no longer need our help," said Rebecca Herlihy, outreach coordinator for Training Wheels.

Like other nonprofits, the group relies heavily on donations that have dried up during the pandemic. Training Wheels spends about $5,000 a month caring for animals, Buroker said.

The group operates almost solely through word-of-mouth, building trust and a reputation in communities.

"People really need to trust you because this is their pet, it’s a part of their family, and they’re handing it over to you," Buroker said.

They have become so well-known in the community that volunteers in unmarked vehicles get flagged down while driving.

"We’re like the ice cream man of Wyandanch," Herlihy said. "They see us down the street and they come running to us."

Training Wheels also helps pet owners with other medical issues, such as cancer treatments, and even responds to emergencies such as dogs hit by cars. In such situations, Almost Home volunteers are the ones cradling the animals in their last moments.

"I had to have two dogs put down today [Sept. 24], I’m a mess," Herlihy said.

Zelaya McQueen, 22, of Wyandanch, called the group two years ago when her cat Lucky chomped down on a fishing hook.

"That would have been a lot of money coming out of pocket," she said. "They really came to the rescue."

Almost Home has been helping her pets with food and supplies for a decade, McQueen said.

"They’ve become part of the family," she said of the group.

ALMOST HOME ANIMAL RESCUE

The Patchogue-based nonprofit was established in 2007 and has been going out weekly to Suffolk communities to distribute food and other pet necessities.

Animals Rescued: More than 2,500

Animals helped through Training Wheels: More than 3,800

Training Wheels costs: $5,000 per month

Current animals available for adoption: 40 cats and 12 dogs

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