Pets

Angel in Fresno, Calif., provides food to thousands of pets

CRAIG KOHLRUSS/FRESNO BEE/TNSSteven Verrue of Fresno, Calif., pets his dog Sable while picking up food at Halo Cafe. Verrue said his dog saved his life.
CRAIG KOHLRUSS/FRESNO BEE/TNSSteven Verrue of Fresno, Calif., pets his dog Sable while picking up food at Halo Cafe. Verrue said his dog saved his life. TNS

FRESNO, Calif. -- Standing in line for a bag of dog food, Steve Verrue points out an outline of an angel on the chest of his dog, Sable.

It's a fitting badge of honor for the dog that saved his life. Sable woke him up in the middle of the night as a fire raged through his home. Steam from the blaze burned his lungs -- he's now connected to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day -- but because of Sable, he lived.

She means "the world" to the 53-year-old Fresno man.

"She's my best friend, my guardian, my alarm."

Verrue has little money to even feed himself, but the thought of losing Sable breaks his heart.

Thanks to Halo Cafe, a free pet food pantry in Fresno for those in need, he'll never have to give up his beloved dog -- or cut his own meals in half to feed her.

Halo Cafe has its own angel, Jennifer Quinn-Yovino. She founded the pantry in 2011 with her husband, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino, after years of volunteering with animal rescue groups and lugging pet food in the back of her car that she would give to homeless with pets and anyone else she spotted who was in need.

Halo Cafe is the only free pet food pantry that she's aware of in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Quinn-Yovino, also the special projects coordinator for the Fresno County Office of Education, was recently honored with a Love of Animals Volunteer of the Year Award during this year's Hands Across The Valley Awards, sponsored by HandsOn Central California.

Halo Cafe was originally going to be "Halo Cafe: Final Meals For Future Angels." Quinn-Yovino planned to go to animal shelters and feed dogs great meals and show them lots of love on the day before they would be euthanized.

Then she had another thought: "Wait a minute, let's get them before they ever cross that threshold."

She went looking for a pet pantry to volunteer with -- eager to help families keep and care for their pets -- but she found none in the central San Joaquin Valley. So she started one herself.

Since its creation, she's helped feed thousands of pets through the hundreds of people who line up for a free bag of pet food twice a month. They also give away pet accessories, like beds and collars.

They've never had to turn anyone away, but there are a few rules. Some of the biggest: People must have their pets spayed or neutered to receive pet food, and once a contract is signed, that individual can't bring new puppies or kittens into their home. There are representatives from the Spay Neuter Intercommunity Project (SNIP) at the pantry to help people get pets spayed or neutered at low cost.

At Halo Cafe last month, Quinn-Yovino's husband watched her affectionately as she helped load a bag of dog food into a car and gave someone a warm hug. He said his wife has a "gracious, caring heart."

"This is what I love about her," he said. "It doesn't matter who you are."

Halo Cafe volunteer LuAnn Ramirez McCaslin was part of nominating her friend for the Love of Animals Volunteer of the Year Award.

"Jennifer is probably the most compassionate, brightest animal lover you will ever come across. I don't care if you are Bob Barker," McCaslin says. "Jennifer feels everything the animals around her feel."

Quinn-Yovino calls the pantry "bittersweet."

"When folks line up, it's bittersweet because I know they need it, and that makes me sad," she says, "but we're here, and that makes me happy."

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