NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - The newly founded Peninsula Pet Pantry started this time last year with a sick kitten at Randi Helpinstill's home in Yorktown, Va.
After adopting two kittens, one soon died of an infectious disease.
Helpinstill's family wanted the surviving kitten to grow up with a friend so she checked pet-wanted listings on Craig's List.
"After an hour, I turned off the computer and said to my husband that so many people were desperately looking for homes for their pets because they couldn't afford to feed them anymore," she says.
"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if there was a food bank for pets just like there are food assistance programs for people?
"That basically was my light-bulb moment."
When Helpinstill went online to research the pantry idea, she found pet food pantries were being started across the country.
The Pikes Peak Pet Pantry in Colorado sent her helpful information to start one locally.
She and next-door neighbor Geralyn Nelson, also an animal lover, spent the next eight months fleshing out ideas and filling out paperwork to become a legal, nonprofit corporation.
"We could not imagine the heartbreak of people having to abandon their pets due to bad economic times, and the shelters were full, the rescues had waiting lists," says Helpinstill.
"We just knew we were going to change all that."
Their mission is to provide temporary pet food and supply assistance to pet owners and caregivers facing economic hardships in Virginia's Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg and James City and York counties. They also aid small rescue groups, feral cat colonies and housebound pet owners.
As their mission grows, their needs grow, too. More volunteers, donations and storage and distribution space are wanted.
Collection sites, events and distribution centers are being updated regularly at the pantry's website at
"The whole experience of building this operation has been one of the most rewarding opportunities of my life," says Helpinstill.
"My mother once told me animals are our teachers and she is right.
"Love for pets is a unifying factor in local communities because this type of love and devotion crosses all socio-economic lines."
Even before the pet pantry, both women were always doing something to aid an animal in distress.
It's a way of life for them and their extended families.
"Roger, my husband, and I are definitely animal lovers, tending to many baby birds, squirrels, turtles, even a pigeon lived with us for a week," says Nelson.
"I think the craziest incident was one morning I found myself chasing a stray husky down the road in my robe.
"He was dragging a chain and I could not bear the thought of him getting hurt in traffic."
Since moving to the county 24 years ago, the Nelsons have adopted a litter of 3-week-old kittens that are now 14 years old. They took in a feral cat that took up residence in their garage five years ago, and their newest addition is Ozzie, a crazy stray kitty she rescued a few months ago from the woods where she runs.
"He was hawk bait, so I grabbed him," says Nelson, who also volunteers at a nearby cat shelter.
"Plus, our two huskies, Kodiak and Raven, keep us very busy."
At the Helpinstill house, Randi's daughters, ages 9 and 6, inherited their love for animals from their mother and get involved in pet pantry activities. They break down large bags of donated pet food and go to events.
"I grew up in a home filled with all types of critters," says Helpinstill.