A student-run pet food pantry to help those in need held its first distribution April 7 outside the Violet Township Administrative Building.
For several months, a Pickerington woman concerned about the health and well-being of people and their pets in the community has been teaming with National Honor Society students at Pickerington High School North to form a nonprofit animal food pantry.
The effort remains fledgling for Tricia Gerencser, a mother and animal lover, and a core group of North students committed to the philanthropic cause.
Sunday, April 7, it went from concept to community service when the Food Pantry for Animals, Pickerington -- also known as Students Helping Our Pets Pickerington -- began distributing pet food for the first time.
For now, the organization will operate every other Sunday out of the backs of vehicles, and its primary distribution point will be the parking lot of the Violet Township Administrative Building, 12970 Rustic Drive.
Sunday, North National Honor Society members started screening prospective food aid recipients at 1:15 p.m., and pet food was handed out from 2 to 4 p.m.
"Animals have always been an enormous part of my life, so I thought that this would be a really cool way to help out pets in need and, through the pets, the owners," said Alex Koenig, a PHS North senior and SHOPP president.
"I have six pets, and they are just as much a part of our family as anyone else," Koenig said.
"Anything I can do to make someone's life a little easier and to help a member of their family is a blessing," he said.
At the outset, any dog or cat owner who lives within the Pickerington Local School District boundaries and currently receives assistance from the PCMA Food Pantry will be eligible to receive free pet food once every 28 days.
SHOPP, which organizers said is the only student-run food pantry in Ohio, also will seek to serve local people who largely live alone with their dog or cat and are in need of help.
"If your companion animal is your only link to socialization and you have not been inclined to seek assistance in feeding your pet -- and you're in need of some assistance -- please come see us," said Gerencser, a Chicago native.
SHOPP one day could move to a permanent location and members said they hopeto eventually provide food for different types of animals.
In the meantime, it's only offering commercial dog and cat foods and it's operating in the parking lot of the township's administrative offices after receiving permission from the Violet Township Board of Trustees.
For now, organization facilities are a secondary focus, said Gerencser, who proposed the pet food pantry partnership with local students to advisers at North.
She said she was driven by worry over increasing difficulties among people in the community struggling to feed themselves, and by extension, the pets that serve as many of their best friends.
"I'm very concerned about nutrition for people and pets," Gerencser said. "There are a lot of people out there and their animal is their only link to socialization.
"Without their animal, those people would have nothing, and sometimes those people are too proud to reach out for help," Gerencser said.
"We want to be open and welcoming to people who truly could use some help, and we want to maintain a modicum of pride and decency," she said. "We never want anyone to feel like they're getting a handout."
Assisting pet nutrition is the top goal of the pantry.
As such, it will seek to educate those it serves by talking with them and providing materials about pet nutrition and affordable food options.
Through assistance and education, Gerencser said, the pantry can break the cycle of the financially driven surrender of pets, which in turn burdens area animal shelters.
In addition to Violet Township, SHOPP is receiving assistance from Petco, 2849 Taylor Road Southwest, Reynoldsburg, which established a foundation, provided the pantry with a start-up grant and is allowing customers to donate pet food or money to the pantry.
Additionally, The FootWorks Store, 1302 Hill Road North, and PHS North are food drop-off sites for the pantry.
However, Gerencser said, the driving force is the honor society students at North.
"It's run by the kids," she said. "There will always be a fresh, core group of students working the Food Pantry for Animals.
"Along with helping people, this is structured as a small business to give the students business experience before they go to college so they can learn how to start a business from the ground up."
Daniel Riordan, a North senior and co-chairman of SHOPP's eligibility committee, said he initially got involved with the pantry to fulfill volunteer hours required as part of his school curriculum, but his perspectives have changed.
"It has been a very fulfilling experience," Riordan said.
"There are plenty of life skills this experience has taught me -- either the easy way or the hard way -- but for me, the most important achievement would be to know our hard work has genuinely helped at least one person in need in our community," he said.
"Obviously, we're aiming to help way more than one, but the moment we end up making someone's life a little bit better is definitely the moment I've been waiting for," Riordan said.
In addition to drop-off points at Petco in Reynoldsburg, the local FootWorks Store and PHS North, monetary donations to the pantry can be made by writing a check to Pickerington High School North. In the memo line of the checks, donors should write "Food Pantry for Animals, Pickerington," or "SHOPP."
Information about the food pantry, as well as inquiries as to eligibility for assistance can be obtained by calling 888-908-6631.