Mark and Joel Mese and Judy Atkinson think animal rescue groups are angels among us. Sometimes, though, angels can use a helping hand.

So in 2009, they created the Rescue Bank of Baton Rouge, which provides food for 30 animal rescue organizations in 15 parishes. It has had a big impact on the often lightly funded groups that care for abandoned animals.

“We’ve been able to save probably twice as many as we did before the Rescue Bank started,” said Lori D’Arensbourg, whose Northside Human Society houses about 20 dogs at any given time. “It probably covers about half of the food that we have to purchase.”

The Meses and Atkinson are neighbors in the Garden District who have adopted dogs through rescue organizations, and when Atkinson heard about the Rescue Bank in Houston, they decided Baton Rouge needed one. The Houston group began after Hurricane Katrina left thousands of pets abandoned by owners who could not bring them along when evacuating after the storm. That animal population threatened to overwhelm the rescue organizations. The Rescue Bank shipped in food donated by manufacturers.

Since then, Houston’s Rescue Bank developed affiliate organizations all over the country targeted for rescue groups that need assistance.

“The small rescue groups really needed help,” Atkinson said. “The SPCA in Houston is so huge, they suck in all the donations. They’ll have a huge room with kennels people have donated to them, while the little rescues are doing great work but they don’t attract any attention and don’t get any resources. That’s how Rescue Bank was created. It was modeled on the food bank to collect donations and food and other supplies and supply smaller rescue groups.”

Manufacturers donate food that is either nearing its expiration date or has packaging problems. To make its program work, RBBR needed a place to store the food. A self-storage company donated space, and the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank also has made some of its facility available.

The Houston office contacts Baton Rouge when a shipment is anticipated. If space is available, the local group gives the OK, then awaits word that an 18-wheeler of food is on the way. Volunteers are enlisted to move the food from truck to storage. A truckload is about 40,000 pounds of food.

“The first three or four years, Turner Industries several times sent a forklift over there to help us get food off the truck,” Mark Mese said. “Whenever the trucks would come, we’d have to get people over to the place. Whoever has anything to do with us has day jobs, so when you get this food, sometimes you get a day, two days notice that an 18-wheeler full of food coming, and you’ve got to figure how to get everybody there. We had days where sometimes the truck had to wait on us, and sometimes we had to wait on the truck.”

Then, RBBR sorts the food for each organization based on the population and ages of the animals the groups report, and has distribution days in which the groups show up to pick up the supplies.

The effort has had unexpected benefits.

“The groups never really talked,” Joel Mese said. “They never had a forum to actually get together and talk. A lot of them didn’t know the others existed, or if they heard the name they didn’t know who they were and what they were doing. A lot of them have told us that one of the things besides the food that has been helpful is we’ve brought the groups together. Now, they know each other.”

The Rescue Bank pays the shipping costs, and is having a raffle that will be drawn on Saturday to raise money to defray those costs.

“We’re all volunteer — no salaries, no administration, no overhead,” Atkinson said. “We have some volunteers that help us, but the biggest need, we found out, was for food. If the rescues have food, they can take in more animals and can use the money that they have for vet bills, which is another big thing. But the food is critical. You can’t have 30 dogs and 60 cats and not have food for them every night.

“Mark and Joel said this is one of the most rewarding things they’ve ever done,” he added. “It’s certainly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done other than my own personal rescue pets.”