Pets brighten shut-ins’ days through Boston nonprofit

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BOSTON – During the six months Robert Burke spent in a Brookline nursing home dying from cancer, Whitney Taylor regularly visited with her dog Barrington, a seven-pound Pomapoo, to brighten his days just a little and provide support.

But it wasn’t like she was an old friend. Taylor was matched to Burke through her volunteer work with PetPals, a branch of FriendshipWorks, a Boston-based nonprofit organization. The program aims to help ease loneliness and isolation among people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Burke, a Vietnam veteran who also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, enjoyed Taylor’s visits and her dog, a crossbreed of a Pomeranian and a Toy Poodle.

“I believe animals bring a lot of happiness to people, especially when they are really sick,” Taylor, who works for a U.S. Air Force contractor in Lexington, said about her volunteer work. “I know I always love the company of them, so I thought other people would share the same experience.”

For Taylor, creating a bond with Burke meant a lot.

“I wouldn’t feel like I was dying alone… I think for Robert, he was in many ways, because he didn’t have that support system.”

During their visits, Burke, who died in January 2013, would feed Barrington his dinner and joke about leaving the little dog his fingers because of the really big bites by the pooch. He also reminisced about Shadow, his one-time rescue dog, who had needed surgery.

The former assistant manager of a Papa Gino’s restaurant in Methuen worked with Richard Lindsay, a Massachusetts Law School professor who founded the Andover Animal Hospital, to set up the Shadow Fund to raise the money needed for the surgery. It wound up collecting more cash than was needed, so Burke sought to put the extra money toward helping other dogs. Today, the fund continues to raise money in memory of both Shadow and Burke to support care for pets in need.

Taylor, who helped to ensure Burke got a proper military burial in Winchester, joined one of his service buddies at the graveside. “It was great just to meet someone else who knew him,” she said.

Since then, Taylor volunteers in a Brighton nursing home through PetPals.

“I think it is our responsibility as human beings to just be there for each other,” she said. “What I did, it was a small thing,” she said of her work with Burke. “It didn’t take anything out of my life; it only added value to it.”

Contact Beth Treffeisen at [email protected] or on Twitter at @beth_treffeisen