Dogs may be man’s best friend, but around Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, our facility dog Pongo is everyone’s best friend. And as it takes a village to provide round-the-clock care for care for 134 kids in our Home, it takes a village to care for Pongo, to maximize his time and resources.

Pongo’s primary facilitator, Tom Gilardi, Vice President of Youth Programs, is a busy man. Pongo is often at his side, but when Pongo can’t tag along, Mercy Home coworkers step up as surrogate facilitators.

Mario Tamayo, Manager of Youth Programs Operations, is one to take Pongo’s leash, whether it’s on visits to spend time with kids or a walk in the neighborhood.

“One important aspect is making sure that I consistently use Pongo’s commands with him. It could be anything from picking up a credit card under a table surrounded by food to jumping onto a park bench,” Tamayo said. “One thing Tom is adamant about with others around Mercy Home is making sure we practice Pongo’s commands.”

That way, Pongo is prepared to pass his required certification each year. Last year, Pongo passed with flying colors.

“Pongo really does require a team,” said Tamayo. “A lot of responsibilities go in to caring for him.”

Gilardi maintains Pongo’s grooming, diet, and commands, while Tamayo makes sure he gets some exercise and sun, does his business, and practices commands. This all contributes to Pongo’s overall health and well-being, which reflects positively onto our kids.

“As soon as Pongo walks into any program, the youth are just so attuned to him. They light up,” Tamayo said. “You really see results with Pongo.”

“It’s so awesome to see kids respond to Pongo. Maybe they’re having a bad day or aren’t out of bed yet, but when they know Pongo is there, they immediately get up to come see him.”

Kaysa Jarrard, Admissions Case Manager, also one of Pongo’s best friends, agrees.

“It’s so awesome to see kids respond to Pongo,” she said. “Maybe they’re having a bad day or aren’t out of bed yet, but when they know Pongo is there, they immediately get up to come see him.”

Mercy Home kids spending time with Pongo

Jarrard didn’t have to be asked twice about being one of Pongo’s surrogate facilitators. In fact, not long after Pongo arrived at Mercy Home, Jarrard made a point of passing by Tom’s office to get a glimpse of the new facility dog.

“Eventually, Tom just asked if I wanted to get trained, so I did,” she said with a laugh. “I thought my obsession with Pongo would wane, but it’s only gotten stronger.”

Like Tamayo, Jarrard has a list of commands she routinely practices with Pongo during her visits to youth programs, to the cafeteria to hang out with the kids, or on walks around the neighborhood. She says her and Tamayo’s roles as deputy facilitators help extend Pongo’s capacities.

“It’s a great way for Pongo to be in program more and be around the kids, which is what he’s here for,” Jarrard said.

On the flip side, Tamayo, Jarrard, and other Mercy Home coworkers say they inadvertently receive therapeutic care, simply by spending time with our beloved facility dog.

“Pongo forces me to go out, take in some fresh air, and get some sun. Then, without even trying, I’m attuned to Pongo and petting him,” Tamayo said. “For me, personally, Pongo has helped me with self-care. Otherwise, I’d just be sitting at my desk all day.”

“There are neighbors that recognize Pongo, so then they recognize Mercy Home, which starts a dialogue, and it all blends together.”

All those neighborhood walks are starting to pay off, as Pongo’s become a familiar sight around Chicago’s West Loop.

“There are neighbors that recognize Pongo, so then they recognize Mercy Home, which starts a dialogue, and it all blends together,” Tamayo said. “Without even trying, we make all these connections with people, which leads to us talking about our mission at Mercy Home.”

Tamayo sums it all up by saying Pongo is a great conversation starter.

“Of course, when people hear that Pongo is Mercy Home’s facility dog, they think it’s the greatest thing ever,” he added.