Jan Schmidt of Tampa got the idea to start her organization, Paws for Friendship (PFF), in 1993 when her mother was in a care facility. The residents in the facility more often had no visitors, no family, and they treated her as if she was their friend - someone to say “Hi” to them, talk to them and hear their stories.
“I never forgot the faces of those just waiting and hoping someone would remember them and pay them a visit,” Jan remarks.
Paws For Friendship, Inc. is a non-profit 501 c (3) organization of volunteers sharing the unconditional love of their personal pets with people in need throughout the world. With approximately 3,200 members in thirty-two states, Canada and two foreign countries (England and Germany) PFF operates out of Jan’s home and has no paid staff. Jan relies on donations and member dues ($60/year) to run the operation. All that is required of volunteers is that they make at least one visit per month to a place of their choosing. This can be a nursing home, assisted living facility, school, hospital, library or any place that welcomes pets. PFF is a National Certified Animal Assisted Therapy Organization whose motto is “Helping Those In Need, One Paw at a Time.”
After Jan’s mother passed away, she grieved over the loss of her best friend. Then something happened that would set her on the path that she is on now. Jan speaks lovingly of her dog, Jennie, who started the whole project.
“One August day I was told of a Great Dane puppy that was to be destroyed because it was mean and out of control. Would I go ‘look’ at it? Little did I know this beaten little six-month-old Great Dane would completely change my life and the lives of thousands of people.”
Jan adopted Jennie and over a period of five years her “fur baby” began to trust her, after having been mistreated by her previous owner. She decided to take Jennie to visit a care center.
“I remembered all those waiting for someone to visit and I wanted to share this magnificent animal that had absolutely saved my life.”
Visiting the center was more difficult than Jan imagined it would be.
“I suddenly felt a wave of terror and knew I could not do this. Not after all those years and all those lonesome faces. I began to turn away. All of a sudden, Jennie pulled me back around and literally forced me into this place. After we were inside, she went over and put her head in this elderly lady’s lap as if to say, ‘I’m here for you’ and she looked at me as if to say, ‘Be my voice and I will be your strength.’
This was the beginning of Paws for Friendship. In 1999, Jennie passed away, but her heart and soul continue to guide the organization. Her legacy lives on.
Bill Smith of Hernando, Florida heard about PFF from his niece, Elizabeth Sherman Wise when he lived in Tampa. He got involved with the organization in 2016. Bill and his poodle mix, Marley, visited nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Tampa and St. Petersburg once or twice a month for about a year. He even became a director for a short time helping new members and orienting them to the program.
“The people’s reactions were unbelievable. They would just glow when they saw Marley. I could put him on their beds and he would crawl up on their chest,” Bill states.
It was not just a one-way street. Bill got as much out of the experience as the people they visited.
“The most important thing I got out of it was to see the look on their faces and watch them interact with my dog,” Bill concludes.
Bill’s niece, Elizabeth became involved with Paws for Friendship in 2012. She and her pit bull mix, Precious, visited hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.
“They absolutely LOVED her and were overjoyed with her visits,” comments Elizabeth.
Seeing the joy that Precious gave the people they visited and seeing the smiles on their faces was priceless. Unfortunately, Elizabeth had to leave the program when she moved from Tampa to rural Hernando County. An hour-long commute to Tampa every day and taking care of her 5-acre property and her horses didn’t leave her a lot of free time.
Would she recommend the program to other dog owners?
“Absolutely! It was so rewarding to be able to share Precious with others,” Elizabeth states.
Vicki Luna of Land o’ Lakes became a member of PFF last February. She now visits five care facilities and one elementary school. She goes to various places once a week. Her two Golden Retrievers – Dante, a 2½-year-old male, and Koko, a 5½-year-old female, accompany her at different times. She takes Dante to all the locations, whereas Koko visits only one senior center.
“Everyone is excited to see the dogs. The different people remember Dante's name after only seeing him one time. People enjoy petting him, talking to him, even kissing and hugging him. The children are usually ecstatic to see him and those who are afraid of dogs slowly learn to approach him and to not be afraid. Of course, Dante loves attention and affection,” Vicki states.
It is evident that Vicki enjoys weekly visits as much as the children and adults enjoy seeing her and the dogs.
“I get to do something kind for others, to console others, to make them laugh, to listen to them, without making anyone beholden to me. I am not the focus. The other person and dogs are.”
Vicki is a true ambassador for Paws for Friendship.
“I want others who have dogs to share their “fur babies” and to consider joining our group. Anyone who was raised to give to others and to love one's neighbor would do well in this group as long as they remember that this is not about their ego but about the other person who needs some love and attention and about the dogs who absolutely love to give attention to those both old and young,” Vicki concludes.
Paws for Friendship does not have any volunteers in Hernando County - yet. If you would like to consider joining this organization or want more information go to www.pawsforfriendshipinc.org or email Jan at [email protected]. You can also call 866- 925-7297 or 813-957-6829.