Senior citizens who rely on fixed incomes can sometimes be faced with tough decisions, especially if met with the need to pay for a care home. Sometimes, the heart-wrenching choice to relinquish a beloved pet is less a choice than a necessity due to financial burdens or physical ability.
Sonya Colattur founded GrandPaws Pantry when she was just 10 years old after seen her grandmother’s friends struggle to remain with the companions that brought them joy. With a mission to keep furry sidekicks with their families, she used her birthday money to buy pet food and supplies. Today, just a day from getting her driver’s license, she removes the financial burden from about 70 senior citizens at 10 assisted living facilities throughout Arizona with the help of grants, business sponsorships and individual donations.
When she’s not volunteering, Sonya spends a lot of time with her two chihuahuas, both rescue dogs. She also spends a lot of time perfecting her aim as a ranked athlete in the Junior Olympics archery division and thinking about a future career in public policy. In fact, her passion for public policy has led her to advocate for the mental health needs of seniors, bringing her all the way to the Arizona Governor’s Council on Aging to make policy suggestions. Her work brings joy to the lives of people who are too often overlooked.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I think a lot of my volunteer work has been inspired by my rescue dogs. Ever since I was little I’ve just really had a passion for animal advocacy. I started by volunteering with the Humane Society and the Arizona Animal Welfare League.
My own organization was inspired by my connection with my great-grandmother, whom I would visit in assisted living. Many of her friends had companion dogs and cats in the facility but lacked the resources to take care of them either financially or due to physical limitations. Knowing how much my dogs contribute to my own life, I wanted to do something to help make sure they could keep their pets.
Describe your volunteer role with GrandPaws Pantry.
Even though I’m president, it’s really important to me to not only be involved in the administrative aspect but directly with the seniors. One of my main responsibilities is coordinating with assisted living facilities so we’re able to provide as many pet care packages as possible. I help manage board meetings with the board of directors, do meeting minutes and the monthly newsletter. I also do all of the deliveries along with a few youth ambassadors.
Do you have volunteers?
I have a Youth Ambassador Program. When I was volunteering in the animal advocacy sector, a lot of organizations required that volunteers be at least 16. When I was thinking about GrandPaws Pantry, I really wanted to focus on increasing opportunities for young people to get involved in helping out animals. Now we have several youth volunteers from ages 6 to 16, and a lot of the Board of Director members are also college students.
What are some things people might not know about adopting elderly pets or about the challenges faced by their owners in assisted living?
It takes an extra step to care for senior pets, because we have to make sure we meet the pets’ dietary and health needs. A lot of seniors’ pets are also senior; they’ve have had them for a while. So, when they’re relinquished, they’re often the most likely to be euthanized in shelters.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many seniors in assisted living facilities were unable to leave their rooms and apartments for fear of contracting the virus. While they were kept physically safe, many experienced increased rates of depression and anxiety. Isolated from family and friends, companion pets were their only source of comfort during that difficult time.
Tell me about your other volunteerism.
Learning more about public policy inspired me to question why senior citizens have so many financial limitations. And it’s really because there’s a lack of support. That inspired me to begin the advocacy part of GrandPaws Pantry.
Two years ago, I also founded The Color of Us, an online youth community for biracial, multiracial and multicultural youth to have a platform to express themselves as well as educate about what it means to be mixed in America. I host a monthly podcast series, create content and engage in advocacy for that as well.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work with GrandPaws Pantry?
One senior I provide for is Carol. After paying for her assisted living and outside costs, Carol has $22 to live off of per month. That’s not enough to buy a box of Friskies canned cat food for one month. So, she’s put in a position like so many other seniors I’ve talked to who aren’t able to provide for themselves and their pet who brings them so much joy. Being able to make sure that seniors don’t have to worry about that and can focus the remaining money they have on themselves is such a rewarding experience that I know seniors appreciate.
Are there any future partnerships, programs or events you are excited about?
Usually, we just provide pet food to senior citizens, but during Santa Paws every December, we provide extra gifts for their pets: blankets, toys, treats, etc. It’s one of my favorite activities every year.
Why do you think it’s important for others to get involved?
A lot of the work that gets done in communities is from grassroots efforts. I don’t think people realize how much it matters to contribute regardless of age, abilities, donation size… Every person can make a difference no matter how small, and I think everyone should try.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
It’s never too young to make a difference. I started GrandPaws Pantry when I was 10 years old, and often when I approached organizations wanting to partner with or told people about what I was doing, it would be treated as a cute hobby but not something that could ever make a lasting difference.
Now, six years later, I manage an operating budget of over $60,000 and have spoken on national news and to state representatives about the work I do. Regardless of how young or old you are and how many resources you have to contribute, everyone can make a difference.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sonya? Find local volunteer opportunities.