A local animal charity which provides an important service to people who are ill or disabled has found a unique way to battle on through the Covid-19 crisis.
Bangor-based Rosie's Trust helps people to care for their pets thanks to a small Northern Ireland-wide army of volunteers.
When lockdown restrictions came in, volunteers could no longer call at the homes of those most in need of their services - many of whom were shielding due to illness.
But Rosie's Trust acted quickly and thanks to a grant from the emergency Coronavirus Community Fund set up by the Community Foundation, the charity was able to meet the demands of lockdown with a new fostering service.
Volunteers, who usually called with people to feed, walk or simply play with their pets, agreed instead to take them into their own homes during lockdown.
For those who didn't want to part with their pets, the charity devised ways to allow them to keep their animals amused as they could no longer be taken out for walks.
Rising to the challenges it faced, the charity has emerged stronger than ever and is delighted to see many new volunteers joining up through a brand new online Zoom training programme.
Operations manager Jayne McStay says: "At the very start we decided we were all going to get through it together and we did and I'm delighted. Rosie's Trust volunteers proved they are second to none in the way everyone pulled together."
The charity was set up in 2015 in Bangor to support people with pets throughout Northern Ireland. It was established because of the recognition that the bond between an owner and their pet can be extremely strong, and can provide companionship, security, and emotional comfort - especially when a person is ill.
Since it started, more than 340 dedicated volunteers have supported more than 130 people who have been affected by terminal illness, cancer or disability.
Volunteers have provided support for 170 pets, mostly cats and dogs but other small animals too, including vet or grooming visits.
Currently, around 110 active volunteers are supporting 30 sick people living at home alone with their pets.
Rosie's Trust works closely with four of the five health trusts and eventually hopes to offer its services in every area.
This is dependent on volunteers and currently its reach extends to Belfast, North Down and Ards, Antrim, Craigavon, Armagh, Banbridge, Newry and Mourne.
Jayne, from Belfast, who has been with the charity for over two years, said Covid-19 presented many challenges which the charity has now come through.
"When lockdown happened, obviously we couldn't call to people's houses," she explains.
"We were very aware of social isolation so we mobilised our volunteers to keep communicating with the beneficiaries through daily check-in phone calls, keeping everyone connected.
"We encouraged our beneficiaries to spend extra playtime with their dogs and delivered interactive toys to some dogs for extra stimulation.
"As many of the people we help are vulnerable with health and mobility issues, we had to plan for more demand for our fostering and re-homing services.
"We didn't have any funds in the pot and we knew we needed to buy bedding and toys and grooming products for our foster carers.
"The Community Foundation grant was a lifesaver as it enabled us to buy new foster kits which our volunteers would need to look after the animals in their care and also personal protective equipment (PPE) kits for them to return to visits safely.
"This was a huge relief for us. It was the first time we'd applied to the Community Foundation - and the speed and efficiency of the funding turnaround removed a lot of the stress from a very challenging situation."
While volunteers could not visit beneficiaries due to lockdown restrictions, they stayed in touch with them by phone, making more than 800 check-in phone calls during lockdown.
The charity advised clients on how to keep their pets entertained while missing out on daily walks.
The daily phone calls from volunteers became a lifeline for many of the vulnerable people the charity serves who were all confined to home.
As restrictions eased the grant allowed the charity to buy PPE to allow volunteers to enter houses again to change cat litter trays, feed dogs, resume vet visits and supply puppy pads where needed.
"I'm glad to say that thanks to the toys and advice we provided, all the dogs were happy during lockdown even though volunteers were unable to walk them," Jayne says.
"Many of our beneficiaries said that the daily phone call from their volunteer proved a very important social contact as they were feeling very isolated from society and living in fear of Covid. Just being able to have that conversation on a daily basis allowed them to feel secure that someone was there for them.
"We also teamed up with community support groups in some areas for those who needed shopping or supplies. We worked with the carers who were going into houses to get them to feed the dogs and they too were excellent.
"When lockdown eased we knew we had to get back to our usual service in the safest way possible so we were able to purchase PPE kits and the grant allowed us to do that.
"I'm glad to say all our teams are now up and running again which is wonderful for everyone.
"We are taking every safety precaution including wiping down the dogs when they come back from a walk."
Thanks to the interactive toys which the charity was able to purchase for the pets, there wasn't a huge need for fostering.
However, one volunteer who did agree to care for a dog at home when its owner had to go into hospital wasn't banking on finding herself with a new pet full-time.
Semi-retired civil servant Kim Hamilton, from Belfast, was looking for a new volunteering opportunity last year when she had some extra time available.
She became aware of Rosie's Trust and, because she was an animal lover, she offered her services.
"For me it was a win-win situation," she says. "The dog got their walk, I got my dog fix and the pet's owner got to keep their animal with them."
Having gone through the volunteer training process, Kim started canine support visits in mid-February.
When lockdown happened and the charity put out the call for volunteers willing to foster animals, Kim was happy to step forward.
Her only stipulation was that the dog should be calm and used to cats as she already had two cats of her own.
"I was asked to care for a Shih Tzu, Ben," she says. "Initially, Ben's owner went into hospital for two weeks, but then she needed to stay longer and go into respite care.
"Ben was settled and I was happy for him to stay longer. Sadly, his owner passed away unexpectedly and Rosie's Trust needed to find a new home for him.
"I'd been thinking for years about getting a dog but always worried about how the cats would cope or if the dog would get upset if I wasn't there.
"With Ben I already knew the answers - he was happy and settled and fitted right in. Being an older dog, at 11 years old, he sleeps when I'm not there and the cats aren't too bothered by him. His age would put some people off adopting, but I wanted to give him another chance at life. I offered to adopt him."
Kim, who is in her 50s and lives alone, says her own life has been enriched by Ben, especially during lockdown.
"Sure, I've given him another chance at life but Ben has given loads to me too," she smiles.
"He was great company along with the cats during lockdown when the only people I saw were over Zoom or through the window.
"He's opened up a whole new world for me - that of other doggy people - when we're out walking or in the park, people stop with their dogs and we chat away.
"We suit each other - I work one day in the office when a local dog walker takes him out and the other two days I work from home. He's a fit and content wee dog and if I can give him a comfortable home for the rest of his days, then I'm happy with that."
While the Coronavirus Community Fund has now closed, the Community Foundation launched the New Needs Fund in June, and it remained open until the end of August, with grants of between £5k and £15k available. It focused on community-led initiatives and it is expected that the funding will support organisations to continue to provide services over the next eight months.
Siofra Healy, director of philanthropy at the Community Foundation, explains: "As we move out of the period of most immediate need, we're focusing on the future, helping organisations to focus and deliver on action orientated, community-led responses.
"Communities have demonstrated staggering generosity towards the vulnerable in society. However, the pandemic has further widened the chasm of societal inequalities, with already disadvantaged groups suffering the most.
"Our resilient and resourceful voluntary and community sector is facing huge challenges ahead in meeting these even greater needs."
For more information on Rosie's Trust visit www.rosiestrust.org or find the charity on Facebook and Instagram. Visit the Community Foundation at www.communityfoundationni.org