TAVERNIER -- Local real estate broker Debrah Bennett has been a pet lover and pet owner for as long as she can remember.
"When I was a little girl I was always rescuing pets," she said last week.
Bennett, 52, still believes in caring for pets in need. But with her newly founded charity, called Keys Pet Pantry, she's striving to help people experiencing economic hardships keep their pets, so rescues aren't necessary.
"We want to keep pets with their owners," Bennett explained. "The companionship of their pets is sometimes the only thing they have to cherish."
Bennett launched Keys Pet Pantry in December and is still going through the application process for tax-exempt nonprofit status. Her business model calls for directly assisting dog and cat owners in need by providing them with food and supplies and by helping them pay for veterinary bills and medication.
Potential clients, she said, will fill out an application that will be used to determine whether they are in need. Workers who have been laid off, people on fixed incomes, commission earners having down months and people who are out of work due to illness are examples of the types of people Pet Pantry would like to help.
Bennett has no staff and says she isn't going to take any salary from Pet Pantry.
So far, however, she hasn't picked up individual pet-owning clients. But she has gotten to work. Keys Pet Pantry has already made what Kat Spiegel described as a "generous" donation to Marr-velous Pet Rescue in Key Largo, which helps foster and adopt out dogs and cats that have been abandoned, abused or surrendered.
"This is so needed in the Keys," Spiegel said of Keys Pet Pantry. "The first thing to go when people are suffering an economic crisis are the pets."
Keys Pet Pantry has also made several pet food donations to the food bank at Burton Memorial United Methodist Church in Tavernier. Those donations are already enabling Burton to upgrade its client services, said food pantry leader Tiffany Katz.
"They are very thankful. Pet food is expensive," she said.
Other early pantry beneficiaries, Bennett said, include the Upper Keys Humane Society in Key Largo and Kim Reda, who spays, neuters and feeds feral cats in Tavernier.
But Bennett isn't just dispensing largesse. She's also receiving it.
A few weeks ago, Plantation Key resident Kathi Fegers donated her used 1996 Dodge van to the cause. When an already excited Bennett opened the sliding side door, she was thrilled to discover that the van was loaded with dog and cat food, as well as a wide variety of other pet supplies.
Fegers, who does volunteer golden retriever rescue work, said when she heard about Pet Pantry she thought it was great idea. She was also reminded of a time a few years ago when she had to pick up an eight-year-old retriever from an Upper Keys family that could no longer afford the dog.
"It was the most heartbreaking of things," Fegers said. "They were crying. It was a very traumatic thing for them. Maybe, had we had a Pet Pantry then ... ."
For more information about Keys Pet Pantry or to make a donation, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (305) 490-7477. A donation bin is also located at the Upper Keys Veterinary Hospital, mile marker 87.8, oceanside.