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When Mary Ann Mayne's van comes bumping down the road in rural Casar, North Carolina, certain senior citizens get a little out of hand. "They see me coming and hurry out onto their porches and wave and holler at me until I make it down the block," Mayne says. You would think she was there to hand out cash prizes. In fact, her visits give the seniors something much more precious: the chance to keep caring for their beloved pets.
Mayne, 47, and her family operate Gretta's Wish, an organization that provides free food, veterinary care, and pet essentials like blankets, chew bones, toys, and treats to seniors who need help providing for their animals. Most of their clients have fallen on hard times or can no longer drive to a store to get pet food and supplies.
The organization is named for Gretta, the Maynes' beloved Doberman who died in 2008. They rescued the dog at age 2 after her former owners, an elderly couple living in a rural area, set her loose to fend for herself when they couldn't afford to feed her. Gretta was eventually brought to an SPCA shelter; she arrived emaciated, with heartworms and hookworms. Mayne and her husband, John, 50, a retired maintenance worker, were running a small sanctuary for elderly and injured dogs from their home near the shelter. Mayne had a reputation for loving Dobermans, so shelter workers called to see if she could take on the young stray.
Gretta was a shocking sight, even for a veteran like Mayne. "She was a walking skeleton with brownish red fur," she says. "I don't know how she was alive." Mayne welcomed the needy dog to her motley crew of rescued and rehabbing animals, and Gretta soon became a pet. "She appreciated everything you did for her," Mayne says. "She was just the sweetest girl."
Several years later Mayne got a phone call from an elderly woman who had heard of the family's rescue organization. She needed help for her two dogs because she couldn't afford to take care of them but hated the thought of losing them. "She was just desperate and broke down crying," says Mayne. "I said, 'It's okay, we'll help you.'"
When she set out for the woman's home with food in tow, Gretta jumped in the front seat of the car. As they waited at a red light, Gretta placed a paw on her arm and, Mayne remembers, looked straight into her eyes. "I felt it was her way of thanking me," Mayne says, "and not letting another animal feel the pains of abandonment and hunger as she had."
Moved by the woman's plight and Gretta's rough start, Mayne founded Gretta's Wish in 2008. She was convinced that seniors just needed a little help to keep their pets, so she reached out to the community; many people donated funds and food, and veterinarians offered free services. A local Girl Scout troop pitched in by building doghouses and hosting food drives.
"I believe older people should be able to benefit from the unconditional love of their animals," Mayne says. "When seniors find out about the program, they say, 'You're helping me keep my best friend.'"
Mayne often ends up caring for the owners in addition to their pets; she helps them find free firewood to keep warm in the winter or freezes bottles of sports drinks to hand out in the summer heat. She also recycles sweatshirts by making them into mittens and hats and cobbles together dog beds for outdoor pets. "Sometimes I'll go on a grocery run for the owners, and for Valentine's Day, I'll bring them candy," she says. "A lot of them don't have much family left."
Mayne's mother, Lois Conner, 80, also gets in on the act, driving around with Mayne as she makes deliveries, helping haul dog food and connecting with her fellow seniors. John keeps things running smoothly at the sanctuary so Mayne can focus on Gretta's Wish full-time. She says they distribute an average of 380 pounds of pet food each week; recently an anonymous donor came up with a much-needed 10-foot-by-10-foot shed that Mayne keeps in the backyard to house food and supplies. She spends about $300 of her own money every month on gas and more on related expenses like car maintenance, but she buys all the pet supplies with donations.
Mayne has grown close to the seniors she affectionately calls grandparents. "They love to talk, and they'll talk about anything at all, so I stay a little longer," she says. "They're my family now. We've given up our lives to do this, and I couldn't be happier."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2011.