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Second Chance nonprofit a lifeline for Mendocino coast dogs

Fort Bragg residents Steve Sapontzis and Jeanne Gocker know better than most the bond that exists between dog owners and their beloved canines.

Through their nonprofit, Second Chance, which assists low-income dog owners along the Mendocino coast, they’ve encountered numerous people who adore their dogs and would do most anything for their welfare.

One woman was willing to sell her wedding ring so she could afford veterinary care for her beloved pet; a man was ready to part with his treasured collection of vintage record albums to fund his dog’s surgery.

“It’s an unquestioning bond,” said Sapontzis, a California State University East Bay professor emeritus of philosophy and ethics and author of “Morals, Reason, and Animals.”

Second Chance provides services so dog owners who are homeless or barely making ends meet won’t find their pets in dire circumstances. Sapontzis and Gocker and their dedicated team of volunteers host monthly first-Friday clinics at the Fort Bragg Food Bank, where clients can pick up flea and tick treatments, dog food, treats and merchandise ranging from dog toys, collars, harnesses and leashes to handcrafted dog blankets, sweaters and jackets — all free, with an honor system in place.

“We’ve been there through hailstorms and whatever,” Sapontzis said.

“Rain or shine, and sometimes it’s pouring all day long, we’re still there waiting for the animals,” said Gocker, a retired teacher who taught typing, secretarial skills and English as a second language during her long career at Piedmont High School near Oakland.

It’s not just the Second Chance team that endures the weather. Dog owners, many of them elderly, overlook inclement weather for the benefit of their pets. Typically 100 to 125 dogs show up with their owners each month. The demand has gone down significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, with clinic modifications in place to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Most people now leave their dogs at home and stop by briefly to pick up supplies.

“Some truly love their animals and will do anything for them,” Gocker said. “These people will come out in the pouring rain. That’s dedication and shows how much people care.”

The all-volunteer organization also funds spay and neuter services and offers limited — but crucial — financial help for veterinary care for sick or injured dogs. Second Chance started working with Mendocino County spay and neuter programs in 2007, providing funding to help reduce pet overpopulation and animal suffering. It covers about 100 canine spay-neuter procedures annually.

Twice a year, clinics provide basic veterinary care, microchipping and dog and puppy vaccines. During the pandemic, services are provided by appointment at a local Humane Society.

There’s been a consistent need since Second Chance was founded more than a dozen years ago, with services gradually added. “We started out small, then opportunities came to expand and we did that,” Gocker said.

Local veterinarian Barbara Weiss is a longtime volunteer and can recall an “overwhelming” response when clinics for vaccinations, rabies shots and basic care were offered annually. “There was so much need,” she said. Spreading services to biannual clinics has helped, with 75 to 80 dogs at each clinic.

“People are extremely grateful for what we’re able to do,” Weiss said. She’s been helping the pets of those in need since her days attending veterinary school at UC Davis, when she donated her services helping the pets of homeless people in Sacramento.

“It’s a long-standing interest for me,” she said. “This program is an opportunity to carry on doing a similar kind of thing.”

Gocker and Sapontzis have been assisting dogs since the early 1980s when they lived in Hayward in the East Bay. They founded Hayward Friends of the Animals, now called Hayward Animal Shelter Volunteers, overseeing efforts to make dogs more adoptable, from grooming them to replacing metal doors with mesh so visitors can see available dogs without looking at their reflection in an overhead mirror.

They also started Hug a Pet, a program bringing visiting animals to convalescent homes, with results so touching they still elicit emotion from the couple; one elderly man hadn’t spoken until he had a friendly toy poodle named Teddy on his bed. The man, Gocker and Sapontzis discovered, was a Holocaust survivor.

Additionally, they began providing dog food to Meals on Wheels clients who were sharing their lunches and dinners with their dogs, rather than eating the full meals themselves.

The couple was awarded Hayward’s prestigious John Pappas Humanitarian Award for lifetime volunteer achievement in 2015, just two years before they relocated to Fort Bragg.

While in Hayward, the couple noticed an abundance of small dogs awaiting homes, typically 5 or 6 years old, some with minor health or behavioral issues. Before moving to Fort Bragg, they made numerous visits to the area, where retirees were relocating to picturesque villages and towns. “We noticed things,” Sapontzis said. “There were mostly large dogs up here.”

Through word-of-mouth and newspaper notices, they began placing small dogs from the Hayward shelter with coastal residents anxious to have the companionship of a little pooch. They established Second Chance Rescue for Small Dogs in 2003, carefully matching dogs, typically from 10 to 20 pounds, with loving homes.

Within several years, they adopted out more than 120 dogs. The couple once had eight dogs themselves, including a “Benji-type dog,” Sapontzis said, that was named Button for being “as cute as a button.”

They’d originally placed Button with a woman who developed an allergy to dogs and was devastated she couldn’t keep him. Button was 12 years old “and we couldn’t see him being bounced around,” Sapontzis said. Instead, the couple welcomed him into their family.

Their efforts in Mendocino County began in the 1990s when they started bringing excess dry dog food from the Hayward shelter for distribution through the Fort Bragg Food Bank. Today they donate 240 pounds of dry dog food per week to the food bank, through discounts from local feed stores and occasionally from the Hayward shelter, when a friend comes to visit. Second Chance also donates dog food to a soup kitchen in Willits, so those receiving free meals can also nourish their dogs.

About five volunteers help staff the first-Friday clinics, more during pre-pandemic days. In addition to their gratitude to Weiss for donating her professional services during the twice-yearly clinics, Gocker and Sapontzis also are thankful for those who help however they can.

A local quilting group donates pillows for distribution during the monthly clinics. Fort Bragg retiree Michele Morris knits and crochets dog blankets, especially hopeful she’s helping shivering dogs owned by the area’s homeless.

“That’s my way of giving back,” she said. Morris said she’s touched by the generosity of Second Chance clients who have little money but donate their spare change and occasional dollar bills at the clinics. “That’s when you see humanity.”

Fort Bragg homemaker Tamara Peebler sews lined cotton dog jackets with Velcro latches. She’s made close to 50 since she began volunteering a year ago.

“I’ve always been a lover of animals,” she said, “especially those who need help.”

For Albion poet and community volunteer dobby sommer, who uses only lower-case letters in her name, Second Chance has made a world of difference in her life. At one time she had four dogs and received assistance through the nonprofit.

“It was very helpful. It was a blessing,” she said. “They were so wonderful and so caring, and you felt that.”

She began volunteering 13 years ago as a way of giving back. She sets up tables and chairs during the monthly clinics and monitors doghouse-shaped donation banks at several businesses along the coast.

“Steve and Jeanne are just the most wonderful people in the world,” she said. “They’re my heroes.”

Fort Bragg retiree Chris Wightman has volunteered with Second Chance since 2014. She oversees the merchandise that’s given away — dogs are fitted for harnesses and wardrobe items — and appreciates the opportunity to lend a hand.

Because of the streamlined operations during the pandemic, like offering flea and tick repellent for home application instead of treating dogs at the clinics, fewer dogs are visiting. Wightman said in an email she’s among those looking forward to post-pandemic days when “all our four-legged friends” return in droves.

“All of us miss seeing the parade of dogs,” Sapontzis said. “It was kind of a social occasion and so forth.”

Second Chance typically operates on a monthly budget of $5,000 to $6,000, with funding through donations, holiday appeals, employee-offered matching funds, bequests and grants. Davis-based GLIDE, a center for social justice, is a main contributor. Expenses have been down at least $1,000 per month throughout the pandemic, as people shelter at home.

For Gocker and Sapontzis, who have two 5-year-old rescue Pomeranians, Nicky and Ricky, Second Chance is something of a second job. “Sometimes I think we work harder now than when we were teaching,” Gocker said with a laugh.

Each donates about 10 hours a week to the cause, often fielding phone calls and making referrals (they direct cat owners to a local agency offering assistance) and assuring the continued success of Second Chance.

“It makes life worthwhile,” Sapontzis said. “It’s a way to give back.”

Added his wife, “I think it’s our love of animals.”

For more information, visit secondchancefortbragg.org or facebook.com/SecondChanceRescueFortBragg. Donations can be made to Second Chance, P.O. Box 2622, Fort Bragg 95437.

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