With Veterans Day 2019 just around the corner, Almost Home Pet Adoption is prepared to show its appreciation for those who have served.

Starting Nov. 1, any military veteran with proof of service and valid identification can adopt a cat or dog from Almost Home Nelson County SPCA, 29 Stagebridge Road in Lovingston, without cost. The new program is available indefinitely to those who served because Almost Home is now a partner with Coming Home Well, a veteran nonprofit organization based in Charlottesville.

Bob Abbott, a retired Air Force veteran and founder of CHW, began his mission to help veterans who may be dealing with trauma in 2015. Abbott said in 2014 he was retired and suicidal. Abbott said he felt as if he didn’t have a purpose.

“My battle buddy Adam said we need to do something to help. [CHW] was founded to save my life and now it’s saving others,” Abbott said.

Abbott said CHW informs the public of the needs of veterans and focuses on finding avenues that help them find jobs, homes and companion animals, among other needs. With this in mind, Abbott went on to establish the Veteran Pet Adoption Program, which launched this past August. So far, three area SPCAs including Almost Home have partnered with the program.

“Ten percent of veterans have PTSD. Hollywood makes it look like we all do. Regardless of your mental state, a companion animal will help,” Abbott said.

Abbott said partnering with SPCAs rather than a breeder helps save two lives. Abbott got his “pound puppy,” a black pit mix named Athena, in 2015. For Abbott, having Athena these past four years has helped him so much that he is now completely off his medications. Abbott said Athena’s big, brown eyes looking at him and her rolling over for belly rubs helps remind him he’s loved.

“It’s hard for me to recognize that in the moments of fiery anger or blue depression, but [her eyes] pull me right out of it,” Abbott said.

Abbott emphasized these are companion animals, not service animals. Anyone can pet them and they are there to help veterans however they need. That’s where the shelters come in. Almost Home has two coordinators who help to ensure veterans are put with the animal that will meet their specific needs. According to the latest U.S. Census data, Nelson County is home to 1,110 veterans.

Fonda Bell, who has been with Almost Home for about 12 years as a dog intake manager and transport coordinator, said Almost Home will partner with Coming Home Well for as long as possible.

“We’re all really eager to do this,” Bell said.

Bell said veterans can look online or visit the shelter to find a cat or dog they believe will benefit them the most. Bell, and Denise Merricks, are adoption counselors who help ensure the adoption will be successful for both parties.

“We help to make sure it’s a good match and suits the specific needs of the veteran. We also have a number of dog trainers volunteering their time to help,” Bell said. “We want to make sure it is successful.”

Merricks said her role is to do training and behavioral assessments, as well as foster some of the dogs to prepare them for life in a home.

“When I foster, they learned to be crate trained, how to be in a household, all the things they need to adjust to a family or veteran,” Merricks said.

Any veteran, including National Guard and Reserve members, are encouraged to come to Almost Home and find their furry friend. Merricks said any veteran who decides on a dog will work with her or Bell to complete the adoption process. Anyone looking for a cat will work with Bonnie Stevens.

“We operate solely on donations. Doing this program is supported by [the] generosity of others. It’s one more thing people can be proud of when donating to Nelson SPCA,” Merricks said.

Cindy Thompson, a Nelson County resident and part of CHW, said the Charlottesville SPCA, which partnered with CHW for the Veteran Pet Adoption Program in August, has already paired 15 pets with veterans.

“That’s pretty significant,” Thompson said.

Thompson said a veteran who wants to benefit from this program does not have to be a Nelson County resident to adopt from Almost Home.

For Abbott, he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. Abbott hopes every state will follow California’s example. California recently passed legislation that requires all SPCAs to allow any veteran to have their first pet for free.

“That’s my goal. I want every county in every state to give the first dog or cat for free,” Abbott said.

Erin Conway covers Nelson County for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5524.

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