AVONDALE — While volunteering at area animal shelters, Alicia Obando was struck by how many people were forced to give up their animals — and how often it could have been prevented.
As a certified child therapist, she also worked with families in need and saw just how important those pets were to those families, even when they struggled to afford them.
"I just saw people relinquish their pets for reasons that were fixable and saw how sad they were when they had to relinquish their pets," she said. "Just seeing how sad that was and how little education they had about proper care and services is kind of how it happened."
So, two years ago Obando founded Pets Are Like Family, a nonprofit organization she runs practically by herself — she's always looking for volunteers — that helps struggling pet owners on the Northwest Side who might otherwise be forced to give up their beloved companions.
Obando found that sometimes the cost of food or medical treatment for pets became overwhelming for families during times of need, but with a little bit of help they could often make it through and keep their pets.
She takes calls from the Pets Are Like Family hotline and brings food, bowls, carriers, collars, or whatever else owners might need to their houses on nights and weekends after her full-time job at a veterinary hospital.
She then refers them to low-cost spay/neuter clinic Tree House Humane Society where they can also get vaccinations if they haven't already.
Even at a reduced price, all the vaccinations plus the spaying or neutering can cost $150 or more, so Obando just asks clients to chip in $10 for male dogs and cats, or $20 for females, as spaying is a bit more costly. She pays for the procedures with donations.
Obando does sometimes comes across people who are resistant to having their pets fixed, and low-cost clinics like Tree House will not vaccinate animals that aren't spayed or neutered.
"Some people will [change their minds on spaying/neutering] because they want our help, but some of them won't," she said. "Unfortunately, that means some of them aren't going vaccinate their pets."
So in addition to house visits and referrals, Obando and volunteer experts offer Pet Care 101 workshops, where pet owners can learn the importance of spaying and neutering their pets, as well as basic training, nutrition and more.
One person Pets Are Like Family helped recently is 72-year-old Jose Carrera, who had to leave his dog, Canela, with friends in Avondale when the public housing he was moving into required a $100 pet deposit and $50 extra per month to have Canela with him.
Obando initially met with Carrera at his friends' apartment to bring food for Canela, as well as set up an appointment to have Canela spayed, vaccinated and microchipped — but Obando hopes she'll be able to do even more.
"I want to see if we can help with him some of those fees so the dog can live with him because that's what he wants," she said.
As Carrera's situation demonstrate's, each client's needs are unique, so Obando works with them to figure out the best solution.
Carrera, who speaks only Spanish, said he was grateful for the help.
"She is my companion," he said of his 9-month-old Cocker Spaniel Mix. "She's like a human to me, and I want to keep her."
More information about Pets Are Like Family's services, or how to volunteer or donate, can be found on its website.