White Marsh-based nonprofit delivers free pet food to the elderly and homeless

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For many people in difficult circumstances, a dog or cat is a link to their humanity

Lynn Molnar doesn't want anyone — especially the elderly and homeless — to give up his or her pet because they cannot afford pet food. Their dog or cat is often a link to their humanity, she said.

That's why the White Marsh resident started the nonprofit Thankful Paws Inc., which delivers free pet food to those who need it.

"It doesn't just provide a bag of food. It provides self esteem," she said.

At Village Crossroads, the Catholic Charities senior community in White Marsh where several of Molnar's clients live, service coordinator Barbara McKenzie agreed.

"It has a huge impact. Their pets are like their children," McKenzie said.

At present, Thankful Paws serves up to 110 clients a month in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties. Last year, Molnar said, she and a group of volunteers delivered 17 tons of donated pet food. She wants to keep it growing.

"So many people could use our service who don't even know about it yet," she said.

For Molnar, a native of Belmar, N.J., who has made the Baltimore area her home, the path to launching Thankful Paws began when she was working for Maryland Institute College of Art. She was accustomed to bringing her golden retriever Hero to work with her, she said, but a policy change in the office prevented that from continuing.

"I decided that if I couldn't bring him to work, I would create my own job," she said

She had long had an interest in dogs and knew many dog owners. She learned of the many pet-related nonprofit agencies, including those who rescued "Katrina dogs" — dogs left homeless in the disastrous 2005 hurricane.

At a pet expo at the state fairgrounds in Timonium, she met representatives of Pet Valu, the pet supplies chain with stores across North America, and learned that Pet Valu was willing to donate bags of dog and cat food that had passed the expiration date. To this day, she said, Pet Valu is her main supplier.

She decided to establish Thankful Paws as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit company.

Molnar acknowledged that, at present, Thankful Paws is a shoestring operation. She does deliveries in her own car and shelving at her residence is used for pet food storage.

At Village Crossroads, where dogs and cats weighing less than 25 pounds are permitted, Audrey Poole, 74, relies on Thankful Paws for the cat food and kitty litter for her cat, named Kitty. Poole is diabetic and said the cost of her medication all but keeps pet supplies out of her budget.

But she's not sure she would have moved to Village Crossroads had she been unable to bring Kitty.

Kitty pushed his head into her hand.

"He's so affectionate," she said, stroking his forehead.

Another resident, Normalie Kotula, 86, brought her yorkshire terrier Mikey along to her new apartment and relies on deliveries from Thankful Paws to help sustain her little household.

"I love him," she said of her tiny dog, who she added gets enormous attention from other residents.

"They all want to kiss him," she said.

McKenzie, the Village Crossroads service coordinator, said the ability to keep and care for a pet is a solace for elderly peoeple when they move to the senior community.

"In transition time, a pet is a source of comfort," she said.

A pet is even more of a source of comfort for many homeless, who make up about 40 percent of her clients, Molnar said. She delivers to dog owners who live in tents, she said.

"Most homeless we help are college-educated working people who had a huge life event happen that they weren't prepared for," she said. "Their dog was part of the life they had. It's so important to them. If you have a dog, you have something that gives you hope."

At present, Molnar's wish list includes more volunteers to help with deliveries. She currently has about half a dozen that she said are "consistent." She would also love to have a truck and an office.

Meanwhile, it's the job itself that buoys her spirits.

"I remember being in elementary school and having career day. The teacher encouraged us not just to settle for a job, but to find something you love. I think all the jobs I have ever had were preparing me for Thankful Paws," she said.

Molnar can be reached through the website http://www.thankfulpaws.org. She will have a Thankful Paws booth at the World of Pets Expo Jan. 23-25 at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

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