By CHRIS PARKER

cparker@tnonline.com

It's Sunday afternoon, and our family and friends have gathered at our home for a Fourth of July weekend picnic. Baby Zoey squeals and bounces in her stroller as 8-year-old Trystan plays her toy guitar. Zoey's "aunt" Ethel keeps a close watch on the little ones. The baby's grandmother, Jane, chats with her sister Helen as they relax on porch chairs a few feet away. Their cousin Bonnie coos over Dove, our hefty pewter tabby, who is lounging on the porch, hoping for a dropped hot dog. Later, she gently strokes Frank, our elderly brown tabby, deaf and dealing with dementia. Bonnie makes a point of visiting Clawedia, our old gray cat who decided as a kitten that the bathroom was hers, and hers alone. No other felines allowed. Our sweet little kitty Pearl, seeks Bonnie out for soft words and a chin-scratch.

Bonnie is our Fabulous Fur Folk's guardian, the person who cares for our seven aging cats when we are away. She is a crucial link in our safety net, our close-knit circle of family and friends whose clasped hands are here to catch us if we fall.

Every gathering, like the one on Sunday, reinforces our safety net by strengthening its bonds, interlocking the lives of the young and old. For others who may not be fortunate enough to have family close by, safety nets can materialize as the need arises.

For Vietnam veteran John Donato, who has no family nearby, the safety net was JoAnn and Neil Pilston of Walker Township. In April 2010, the Pilstons stepped in, through a program called Guardian Angels for Soldiers' Pet, to care for Donato's best buddy, a black Lab named Diesel, while Donato spent 19 months in the hospital.

For Donato, the Pilstons were lifesavers; Diesel is the center of his life, his reason to keep going. If not for them and Guardian Angels for Soldiers' Pet, Donato's beloved Diesel may well have ended up in a shelter, or euthanized. Had that happened, Donato may well have lost the will to live.

The Pilstons cared for Diesel for more than a year, regularly making the roughly 100-mile round trip to the VA hospital in Lebanon so Diesel could visit his master.

Diesel, well-mannered, would walk into Donato's room and, unable to restrain himself, jump up on Donato's bed for exuberant kisses and snacks.

The Pilstons made sure Diesel was as well-cared for as their own dog, a Golden Retriever named Dana, taking him to the vet, playing with him, taking him for walks and giving him lots of attention.

After taking Diesel back to Donato's Blandon home on May 28, the Pilstons immediately volunteered to foster another dog through Guardian Angels for Soldiers' Pet. The new dog is Sadar, a 6-year-old Doberman Pinscher whose owner is in Afghanistan.

The Pilstons are among the strongest threads of the safety net being woven by Guardian Angels for Soldiers' Pet.

Founded in 2005 by Linda Spurlin-Dominik and Carol Olmedo, the organization provides safe, caring foster homes for the pets of military personnel who are deployed, hospitalized or in need of temporary care. There is no charge for the service, but the pets' owners are responsible for food, veterinary care and other routine expenses, just as they would if their pets were still with them. The foster families are carefully chosen, and everyone living in the home must be on board with program.

To learn more about Guardian Angels for Soldiers' Pet, visit their website at http://guardianangelsforsoldierspet.org/.