Pet food charity earns recognition for its work

Founder gets a spot on wine label

As the owner of a construction company, Tom Wargo wanted happy clients — and happy pets, too.

Back in the late 1990s, the man with a soft spot for animals toted dog and cat treats with him on remodeling and repair jobs.

But after Wargo got calls from a church to help elderly women with home repairs, what he saw broke his heart: home-bound women sharing their noontime Meals on Wheels food with their pets.

“There was this sweet old lady and she was feeding a feral cat, and that cat was her only friend, giving her reason to get up in the morning and giving her a reason to live,” Wargo said. “How do you say if you can’t afford that cat, tough. Call animal control and they will pick up that cat and put it down.”

In 1997, Wargo started building a charity to feed needy pets — Daffy’s Pet Soup Kitchen. In the beginning, he handed out free cat and dog food from his truck — about 40,000 pounds of pet food a year. By 2008, he secured a warehouse in Lawrenceville for his nonprofit to store the food, and he started doling out hundreds of thousands of pounds of cat and dog food. Last year, Daffy’s, considered the largest pet food bank in the state, gave away just over 800,000 pounds of dog and cat food.

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Other smaller organizations that provide free pet food include Pet Buddies Food Pantry in Woodstock.

The good work of Daffy’s captured the attention of Barefoot Wine. Daffy’s, one of seven nonprofits across the country being celebrated by the winemaker, graces the label of the winemaker’s new Impression Red Blend wine label. The special bottles of wine featuring the seven organizations started hitting shelves this month. Barefoot also made a donation of $10,000 to Daffy’s.

“Some people would say they would rather help people instead of animals,” Wargo said. “But we are helping people. People would go home and cook whatever little they had and give it to their pets. The people were malnourished, and the pets were, too.”

Wargo gets donated food from a variety of places, including collection bins at Petco stores, veterinarian offices, pet grooming shops and other businesses.

Tom Crook of Lawrenceville started getting help from Daffy’s about five years ago. Crook, who worked in construction, had suffered a string of setbacks after undergoing neck surgery. The economic downfall made jobs scarce. And then, his wife lost her job. Crook said he was skipping his medication so he would have money to buy pet food for his beloved cat, Princess, who recently passed away, and his big Newfoundland mix dog, Bear.

“He’s always been there for us,” said Crook, who now works as a handyman and volunteers at Daffy’s, recently building shelving for the warehouse. “He will do anything he can to help.”

To get the food, pet owners must adhere to some strict pantry rules, which include the following: The pets must be spayed or neutered within 45 days if they haven’t been already, the pets must get annual rabies shots, and the pet owners are required to do five hours of community service a month at Daffy’s or any another charity, which includes everything from churches to schools to Girl Scouts.

Once pet owners qualify for the program, they can go once a week for pet food for up to two pets. Wargo said many of his clients include seniors, war veterans and the disabled. Some clients receive the pet food for only a few months while looking for work, while others are longer-term clients.

When people arrive to pick up the pet food, they hand over a canvas bag with a number on it. Volunteers check the number to make sure they still qualify for the program, and they use a scale to give a varying amount of food depending on the weight of the animal. (All of the dry food is mixed together and stored in huge tubs.) Volunteers also give away canned food and, depending on availability, pet treats and toys.

Corrdelia Joseph of Doraville learned about Daffy’s just a few months ago — when she was at DeKalb County Animal Services and Enforcement to give up her dog.

“I was sobbing,” said Joseph, who has three dogs. “But I had lost my job, lost my house and I couldn’t afford to take care of my dogs, so I brought my oldest dog, Tasia, to the shelter. I was crying so hard I could barely speak. And the woman wrote down ‘Daffy’s’ on a slip of paper, and he’s been helping me ever since.”

Joseph recently got a job and thinks she’ll only need assistance from Daffy’s for a few more months.

A few years back, Wargo struggled to cover the costs of the nonprofit and considered shuttering the organization. But he is now in better financial standing after moving to a new location in Lawrenceville and setting up a small pet supply store to help cover the nonprofit’s expenses. Besides the main location in Lawrenceville, Daffy’s has a mobile unit in Austell, and plans include expanding to several locations in metro Atlanta, including a mobile pet food bank in DeKalb County and north Fulton.

Wargo said he tries to pick up handyman jobs a couple of days a week to pay his bills. He draws no salary from Daffy’s, and his 2011 IRS Form 990 shows he received only $2,100 for mileage and other expense reimbursement. Wargo lives alone with his three rescue cats about a mile from the Daffy’s headquarters.

“People are really hurting financially,” Wargo said. “… We want to keep families and pets together.”

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