Paw in Hand Match website needs votes for grant
A few seconds after Emily Muscatello said hello with beaming blue eyes and an outstretched hand, she's quickly leading the way behind a twisting labyrinth of closed doors toward the back of a Sanford boarding kennel.
A maze of greenish gray cubicles fills the floor of the final room, about half the size of a gymnasium, as the echo of barking ricochets off 20-foot-tall neon green cinder block walls. Muscatello leads with her feet, darting left, then right through the maze of cubicles holding at least a dozen dogs. The walls are high enough to keep dogs from escaping, but Muscatello says most are well behaved.
"Donna is a fabulous boarder," she says as she stops at the last door at the back of the room.
She opens a sliding lock, and an affable woman in ruby red lipstick and frazzled brown hair stands up for the first time in hours, her eyes just peeking over the wall.
"Hi, I'm Donna," she said. "Welcome to my kennel."
Donna Neale has been living a claustrophobic's nightmare for six days now, as she steadily shakes hands and smiles, happy for the company. She's trapped herself inside a 4-by-6 foot kennel pen for 240 hours straight.
Neale doesn't look like a woman who voluntarily lives in a kennel. Bedecked in gold jewelry and an eclectic latently hippie-chic outfit, she's a young Winter Park grandmother who years ago acted as a mother to her sons' friends — the cool parent on a block of much stricter ones.
What she doesn't look like is a dog lover. But for 10 straight days she's living like one.
"There are no luxuries here," she said, picking through a pile of eight pillows that she lays down every night to sleep just above the purple linoleum floor. Taller than the average woman, her head rests on a black pillow with white paw prints while her feet nearly touch the opposite wall.
"It's like an apartment in Manhattan," Muscatello said of the cube's diminutive size.
The only other hints of a dog in this room are the Dalmatian hat jokingly given to Neale by a friend, and the leftover fur covering her entire bed.
But make no mistake: Neale loves animals. One of her sons is caring for her five dogs and three cats while she's incarcerated herself for charity at the Dog Day Afternoon Kennel. And she's not crazy, though she said she'd have to be to do what she's doing. She's doing it all for a cause.
At the other end of more than a week cooped up with only the barking of dogs and the glow of her laptop computer to keep her company, she's hoping to win $250,000. The chances are just slim enough to keep her optimistic. When Pepsi Cola announced its Refresh Project, seeking to give grants to innovative businesses and non-profits that will "have a positive impact", 1,000 people signed up immediately, filling the application list within a minute.
"I had to use my son's faster computer just to get on the list the next month," Neale said. The next hurdle is to generate votes for her project, called Paw In Hand Match, which uses a website to match suitable adoptable pets with prospective owners.
Her goal is to stop animals from being euthanized at animal shelters due to overcrowding or standards that are too high, resulting in good pets being put down.
"There's not enough space for them," Neale said. "Even the so-called non-kill shelters will send dogs right across the street to be euthanized. There are heartbreaking stories across this country."
With help from her husband, Walter, she's pushed her service to try to take it nationwide, putting $20,000 of her own money into the project. He passed away in December.
This is his legacy, she said.
"The last thing he said was 'I want to see you make our dream come true,'" she said. "He said he didn't want to stand next to St. Francis and see so many dogs crossing over."
Sitting on a folding chair in front of her laptop computer perched atop a makeshift plastic dresser, she peers through thick black-rimmed bifocals, checking her project's vote ranking. She has to get below the top 100 in the country to survive this round of voting.
"I'm at 154 right now," she said. "I'd be heartbroken if I spent all this time in here and didn't make it to 99."
She closes her eyes as she forms sentences. Every morning she's woken up by barking dogs at 5 a.m.
"And I go to sleep when they do," she said.
But she knows she's doing this for them. For 10 years, she's been helping animals find new owners.
"All the matches I've made, they've never come back," she said.
Paw In Hand is her dream of taking things bigger. One day she hopes to help dogs and cats nationwide to find new families before it's too late.
"I just want to give pets another option," she said. "I just want to give them another chance."
Vote for Paw in Hand! To go on to the next round, Paw in Hand Match has to be in the top 100 projects. It is currently 154 and voting ends on Saturday, Aug. 31. To vote, visit www.refresheverything.com/wwwpawinhandmatch.