Like many good things in life, David Foster’s charity PlayforStrays began quite by accident. Before Covid hit, David’s job involved a lot of international travel and he often found himself spending days in different cities and countries with free time on his hands.
During his downtime he started visiting animal rescue centres in different locations and offering to help clean kennels or walk the dogs.
Soon he was packing balls and squeaky toys in his suitcase to take to the rescue centres as gifts — and that’s how PlayforStrays was born.
“I’m a huge animal lover,” he explains. “People thought I was mad, going to all these amazing places and heading for the local rescue centres, but once you’ve seen places like Dubai 25 times the novelty wears off.
“I’d find myself on a layover and I’d just want to be around animals, so I’d literally go to shelters and offer to walk their dogs.
“I rarely flew with a full suitcase, so I started using my extra luggage space to take toys for the dogs. So many of them had had such rough lives, it was so special to see them playing.”
That was five years ago. Soon David’s family and friends got wind of what he was doing and asked him to start taking out toys on their behalf.
“People started giving me a toy or a ball to pack in my suitcase,” he laughs. “They’d just ask me to take a photo of a rescue dog playing with it at my destination.”
As word got round and more and more people started contacting David (40) with donations, he realised he needed to make his enterprise official.
He got charitable status for PlayforStrays two years ago and his supporters came together to fund a red van to help with collections.
He also started putting collection boxes in local vets’ surgeries and pet shops.
“Because I was flying for business my luggage allowance was very generous and I just didn’t need it, so I started packing suitcases stuffed with toys, balls and leads,” he says.
“I tried not to handle people’s cash, so I set up an Amazon wish list to direct people to instead.”
It was on a bucket list holiday, not a business trip, to Brazil that David met an extra special dog who gave him even more reason to keep helping animals.
He was on a boat trip in the Amazon when he found a black dog, who was “just skin and bone” starving to death on a remote island beach.
“I think she must have been a guard dog on a boat and the crew had kicked her off,” he explains. “She had no other reason to be there.
“She was covered in wounds and fleas, and thin as a rail. She would have died if I’d left her there.”
David had to negotiate to bring the dog — who he named Negrita — on board the boat with him and get her to safety. He gave her his own ration of food and used his belt for a collar.
Negrita even ended up sleeping in David’s cabin for safety after the captain tried to throw her off the boat early one morning.
“I just couldn’t believe I was the only one who wanted to help this poor dog,” he says.
Negrita had to spend six months in quarantine in Brazil before making the 6,000-mile trip to Dublin, where she was reunited with David and taken back to his home in Antrim.
She has now become the face of his charity, although she still has her quirks.
“She doesn’t trust people and I don’t blame her, after everything she’s been through,” he says. “We go out for walks very early in the morning and she wears a bright pink muzzle — you can see my dog coming a mile off.
“I promised her when she arrived that I would look after her and make her as happy as possible for the rest of her life — and I’m sticking to that.”
There’s no doubt David will be true to his word. When his previous dog Freeda, a Weimaraner, passed away just over a decade ago, David flew to LA to have her ashes mixed into ink and a lifelike portrait of her tattooed onto his back.
“People joked that Freeda was my shadow; she was always following me around,” he explains.
“I thought if I had her portrait tattooed on my right shoulder then she’ll be right behind me for the rest of my life, watching over me.”
When Covid hit, David’s work trips abroad came to an abrupt halt, so he decided to dedicate PlayforStrays to helping Northern Ireland dogs in need instead.
Several companies — including the Tesco warehouse in Antrim — now make donations of sacks of unwanted dog food, which David distributes out to local rescue centres and people who are struggling.
“I’ll never forget meeting one woman during the first lockdown who was in tears because she was taking her dog to a shelter,” he says.
“She’d lost her job and she simply couldn’t afford to feed her. She was heartbroken.
“She couldn’t believe it when I gave her the food she needed so she could keep her dog. She still interacts with the charity social media page to this day.”
David, who works for an engineering company in Dundonald, starts his working day at 5am so he can be free in the afternoons to run PlayforStrays.
He also spends one Monday evening every month standing in Belfast city centre with Reaching Out Homeless and Community Support, giving out food, dog coats and leads to homeless people for their dogs.
“It’s just really important to me to be able to help as many dogs out there as I can,” he says. “I do it for the love of it. The afternoons come round and I’m off in my charity van making collections or deliveries.
“I’ve always been such a huge animal lover — this is just my way of doing my bit.”
n For more information, search PlayforStrays on Facebook or visit playforstrays.org.uk