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Christina O’Connor

Homeless Pooches

The volunteer group K9 Kokua helps care for 600 dogs that belong to homeless persons, whether it’s providing medicine, toys or extra food

It is late morning on a sunny February day when three volunteers with K9 Kokua drive up to a Waianae beach, where Reggie and his dog Lucky are sitting on a rock wall. K9 Kokua executive assistant director and webmaster Jae Bonarek and events director Catherine Lathrop toss Lucky a couple of new toys and play with him while also checking for ticks.

Meanwhile, executive director Kale Lyman hands heartworm preventative medicine to Reggie (no last name for privacy reasons) and explains how to administer it.

Reggie, a houseless individual who spends most of his time on this beach, has had Lucky since the 10-year-old Lab was a puppy. And throughout that time, K9 Kokua has been there helping the pair, providing Lucky with the type of resources and care that Reggie can’t afford.

“They help a lot,” Reggie says of the organization. “I have nobody.”

K9 Kokua is a volunteer-run nonprofit that cares for dogs that belong to homeless owners by providing a range of goods and services to the animals, including spaying and neutering, emergency medical care for sick or abused canines, microchips, supplemental dog food, flea and tick shampoo, vaccinations, identification tags – and, as Lyman says, anything that a dog would need to be safe, happy and healthy. The group also regularly visits dogs to drop off medication and toys and simply to play with them.

“If somebody is houseless and they have a dog, there are no resources for them,” Lyman says. “The dogs, without us, would severely lack resources that are a necessity to them.”

Lyman founded the organization in 2003 after seeing a homeless dog, Opu, on the streets of Nanakuli every day on her commute from the West side into town.

“I have always been a dog lover … and just seeing that one specific dog, something spoke out to me to see if I could offer help to the dog and these people,” Lyman recalls.

So one day, Lyman worked up her courage to approach Opu’s owners, who welcomed her gifts of treats and food. Within a week, Lyman also was introduced to their friends – and soon she had a number of dogs she aided in her spare time.

“I had no idea that there were so many dogs out there with these people who needed help and had nowhere else to turn to,” Lyman says.

At the time, Lyman was working as a phlebotomist and client services associate at a medical laboratory. But at work, she found herself thinking and worrying about Opu and the other dogs.

“That was when I realized that it is my true path to help the dogs,” she says.

Today, the group consists of eight core volunteers, and Lyman estimates that they serve about 600 dogs islandwide and another 12 dogs on Maui.

Bonarek, Lathrop and Lyman assert that their work has long been misunderstood, and that many people – and even many human service organizations – don’t understand why a houseless individual would want to keep their pets. Not only is it another mouth to feed, but also many shelters do not accept individuals with pets.

But the volunteers have begun to witness a sea change in public perception – and say that others are beginning to recognize the importance of the work that the organization does, especially the unexpected ways in which it can help people as well as animals.

With this budding awareness, K9 Kokua is aiming to start two new collaborative programs that will benefit both dogs and their humans.

It is working with Onelauena Shelter to launch a kennel/shelter hybrid, where K9 Kokua would provide on-site care for dogs while their people are in the shelter. K9 Kokua also hopes to create a similar program for victims of domestic violence. K9 Kokua often encounters individuals who are reluctant to leave their current situations – whether it is life on the street or an abusive relationship – if it means that they would have to leave their dogs behind. Through these initiatives, K9 Kokua feels that it will encourage more people to seek help from assistance programs.

For these volunteers, it is all about keeping dogs and people together, despite the fact that owners like Reggie can’t provide the necessities for their animals.

“They are family, and a lot of the dogs were in homes with their families before they found themselves laid off … or whatever reasons brought them out here,” Lyman says. “Their dog stuck by them through all the bad times. When all their family and friends disappeared, the dog is right there.”

Throughout the years, K9 Kokua has bailed Lucky out from a number of precarious situations, including taking him to the vet to treat a serious respiratory infection or tracking him down when he went missing.

“(Lucky) is a constant companion,” Lyman says. “They are always together … It is very rewarding to see Lucky so healthy and to see his papa (Reggie) so happy with him. I mean, look at this boy.”

Lucky runs in circles on the beach with his new toy, jumping in the sand as Reggie sits on the wall and takes a drink from a bottle in a plastic bag. When Bonarek, Lathrop and Lyman pet Lucky goodbye and turn to leave, Lucky perks up and follows them as they start to walk away, barking alongside them. Lyman pauses to give him one last belly rub.

Awhile later, the group arrives at the small home of Rosanna Delenia and Charles Pila. Their 2-year-old dog Copper, a tiny Jack Russell terrier, scampers around the house.

The couple has had Copper since she was 6 months old, but a few months ago, they almost lost her. When their housing company switched management, residents were required to have their animals spayed or neutered and up to date on all shots.

While this might be standard for most owners, circumstances were more complicated for Delenia and Pila. Delenia uses a walker, and Pila, who has one leg, is confined to a wheelchair. When they were told that they had to get shots for Copper, they worried about how they would get there. K9 Kokua also occasionally aids families in homes that are in need of financial support for their pooch. The group provided Copper with a wellness checkup, shots, spaying and a microchip – and a ride to the vet.

Copper, Delenia and Pila say, is the perfect companion for them – and it’s clear that Copper feels the same way. During K9 Kokua’s visit that day, Delenia and Pila are constantly playing with their pup, and Copper never leaves their sight.

“If it wasn’t for (K9 Kokua), (Copper) wouldn’t get spayed, and they wouldn’t allow her to be here,” Delenia says. “We had no way of getting her shots or going to the vet if it wasn’t for (K9 Kokua).

“I was praying for a long time, because I never wanted to get rid of her … I was praying, ‘I hope something happens so that we can keep her,’ and then they came along,” Delenia says. “That was a blessing.”

K9 Kokua hosts its main fundraiser March 16 from 2 to 7 p.m. at Chez’s Sports Bar and Grill in Aiea, and will feature live music, an auction and food. Tickets are available at Veterinary Emergency Referral Center and 55 Pawsh Place. All proceeds will benefit the dogs.

To help or for more information about the organization or the event, call 853-7268, visit k9kokua.org or “like” K9 Kokua on Facebook.

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