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Hampstead-based mobile pantry ‘a blessing’ for pet owners in need of a hand

Roxi was there.

When Michele Shaffer of Westminster had a car accident a few years ago, Roxi, her dog, was with her. And when Shaffer had to be cut out of the mangled steel of her car, Roxi was there, huddled on the floor on the passenger side. And when Shaffer came home from the hospital and began the long and arduous journey of healing physically and emotionally, again, Roxi was there. Right by her side.

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The woman and the dog have been through much together. “We share a bond,” Shaffer said.

So, when Shaffer could not work after the accident and the family went through their savings, she turned to MCQE Mobile Pet Pantry for food for her much-loved Roxi. “It was a blessing, a godsend,” Shaffer said. “I am so grateful.”

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For people like Shaffer, their pets are family. And this is something Michele Szper, the founder of the Hampstead-based nonprofit MCQE, understands all too well.

Szper of Hampstead has spent much of her life loving and caring for animals — currently two rescue dogs and a rescue cat — and working in dog rescues, where she has helped over 300 dogs find their forever homes. Now she has taken her commitment to help animals one step further with the mobile pet pantry.

“There are a lot of food pantries for people,” said Szper, who began the pet pantry about a year ago, “but nothing for dogs or cats or any other animals.”

And when the people who have these pets fall on hard times, it can be devastating for both the pets and the family.

“A lot of animals end up in shelters because their families cannot afford to feed them,” Szper said. “Anything can happen to a person: an illness and not being able to pay for medication or a loss of a job or a death in the family. A lot of pets end up in the shelters because of that. I feel like no one should have to choose between buying their medication or feeding their dog.”

Since beginning MCQE — which stands for Michele, Cienna, Quinn and Erik, for her and her daughter, son, and husband — the pantry has helped nearly 1,000 pets, Szper said, including providing a wheelchair for a dog named Bandit. And this doesn’t just include dogs and cats, but also guinea pigs, rabbits, birds, horses, chickens and ferrets. As such, the nonprofit has provided 31,443 pounds of food so far.

“We help any pet,” Szper said.

Szper travels to area food pantry events and sets up outside to hand out pet food for those in need. “Our clients are able to get food from us once a month,” Szper said.

And, in fact, the pantry hands out three tons of food monthly. As such, Szper said, donations of both money and goods are greatly appreciated.

“We accept unopened and opened bags of dog food, cat food, and treats,” Szper said. “We also accept canned food in good condition.” And, according to Szper, there is an especially big need for cat food. “It’s the hardest thing to come by,” she said.

Besides food items, the pantry also collects blankets, bowls, flea and tick medicine, leashes, collars, toys, kitty litter, and pet beds.

The pantry has been well received by the community, Szper said, and has been supported with food drives by such organizations as local schools and scouting troops, as well as individuals. One little girl recently asked those coming to her birthday party to provide food for the pantry instead of gifts, Szper said. MCQE is also affiliated with the nonprofit Carroll Community Fund.

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And while the pantry is open to all of those in need, “my one rule is if you get another animal while I am helping you then we are done,” Szper said. “If you can’t afford to feed what you have, why would you get another mouth to feed?”

The program was intended to be for temporary use. In fact, “We have people that have used the pantry only once,” she said. But, “there are cases where they are permanent,” she added.

Besides setting up at food pantry events such as those held by Carroll County Food Sunday, Szper will also meet at designated spots to deliver pet food, and she makes home deliveries for those who may be homebound.

She is glad to do so. “For some of these people, their pet is all they have,” she said.

Her clients, she said, range from senior citizens to veterans to individuals like Shaffer who have unexpectedly hit upon hard times. And she has witnessed their struggles firsthand.

“I remember this senior citizen when I first started,” she recalled. “It was super cold out, and he was walking to the food pantry. He was walking because he needed to save the gas money he would use for his truck to buy food for his dog.”

When he saw MCQE set up outside the regular pantry, he was delighted. “Then the next month when he drove up in his truck I burst into tears,” Szper said.

So great is the need that Szper has shown up for a food pantry event and run out of 900 pounds of food in 25 minutes. “The trunk was empty. There was nothing left,” she said.

Given the loads of pet food she provides — her garage has been converted into a room full of shelves and storage space — she hopes to someday have a school bus to better and more easily transfer the food and supplies. “It’s my dream,” she said.

Through the first year she has weathered all kinds of weather, from rain to freezing temperatures to sizzling hot days, just to make sure people can feed their pets. “I am like the postman,” she said, chuckling. “The weather doesn’t stop me.”

“She and her family are so committed to this,” Shaffer said of Szper’s husband, 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter who often assist her with the pantry. “What amazing ideals to pass on to your children.”

And for those who might say she should be feeding people not pets? “They don’t understand how much an animal means to a person,” she said.

For a person like that, look no further than Shaffer, with her constant companion Roxi, who escaped the car accident physically unscathed for the most part but suffers from trauma as a result of the event. So grateful is Shaffer for the pantry that she wants to someday return the favor.

“I would like to go with her and help her when I am physically able,” she said. “I want to be able to give back for all that has been given to me and to Roxi.”

For those interested in learning more about MCQE visit https://mcqemobilepetpantry.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/mcqe.mobile.pet.pantry/.

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