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OELWEIN — None of the three dogs playing in the cool, shaded grass at Washington Park would otherwise be around to do so Monday if not for the efforts of Shelly Gebert.

Not Boo, the portly 15-year-old pitbull with arthritis whose owner could no longer take care of her. Not Willie, the 2-year-old blind toy Yorkshire terrier with a hole in his skull from abuse. And certainly not Maggie, a 10-year-old Chihuahua found wandering the streets in Wichita, Kansas, and who walks with a twisted head — and nearly permanent grin.

Because of their age or medical issues or both, none of the dogs are good candidates for adoption, Gebert said. And if they can’t be adopted out, their fate is grim.

But Gebert — a board member at Cedar Valley Pitbull Rescue, an organization that takes in dogs of all breeds to foster out — thought it didn’t have to be that way.

“Where would they be if they didn’t come to your house?” Gebert said as she watched the three dogs. “Like little Maggie — from on the streets to the shelter to the ‘kill list.’ Now she’s at our house getting spoiled all she wants.”

So she started up the Penelope Project, a nonprofit organization that finds “comfort homes” for dogs who are dying or who would have been put down at shelters — a “dog hospice” of sorts.

It began with a Boston terrier puppy named Penelope, who was found in a Chicago Dumpster and taken in by Gebert. Penelope had a degenerative disease that affected her spine, but was “happy all the time,” Gebert said.

“We got her to the point where she could feed herself, scoot across the floor. She did a lot of things people said she could never do,” Gebert said.

Gebert started a Facebook page for the peppy pup. Even after the dog died, Gebert said the page was “bombarded with messages” from those touched by her story.

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“We just decided, ‘We’ve got to do something,’” Gebert said. “Let’s start a program that focuses on old dogs, ill dogs and the ones that are put on a kill list at shelters first.”

That was the beginning of the Penelope Project, begun in May with Boo, followed by Willie and Maggie. More shelters and rescue organizations have been knocking down Gebert’s door to take more in, but she doesn’t have more room at her Oelwein home.

She’s seeking volunteers willing to be “comfort homes” for a dog’s final weeks, months or years. Her organization pays for all food and medical needs, and volunteers don’t need any experience caring for special-needs animals.

“You just have to feel comfortable — they might have an accident, they might need to be given medication,” Gebert said.

Gebert said she enjoys each dog’s personality, from the way Willie snuggles with her in a blanket to seeing Boo become more energetic after getting the right medications and supplements for her arthritis. And don’t even get her started on “ornery” Maggie, who cracks her and daughter Sami Tecke up on a regular basis.

The real payoff, she said, is knowing a dog’s final days aren’t spent in a cage, or being euthanized before their time.

“I was kind of nervous — ‘Oh, you gotta take in those dying dogs’ — but look at the big picture,” Gebert said. “It makes a difference.”

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Those interested in volunteering to be a comfort home may visit "Penelope's Page" on Facebook or email wearefamilypenelopeproject@gmail.com for more information.

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Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer at The Courier, covering a wide variety of northeast Iowa news. Call Amie at 319-291-1581 or email amie.rivers@wcfcourier.com.

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