PILLAGER -- When Dave and Carol Leeman moved from Minneapolis to Pillager three years ago, they quickly learned how slow business can be around here during the winter months.
After a successful first summer operating their home-based business, Dave's Auto Detailing, their winter business dried up, leaving them financially strapped.
Although they since have rebounded, the Leemans, including their 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, found themselves forced to rely on the Pillager Area Food Shelf to make ends meet that winter.
Another problem was the family had four German shepherds. Since they couldn't afford to put food on the table for themselves, they had a problem feeding their dogs as well. They resorted to doling out rationed cups of food for the dogs and supplementing their diet with some of the bread they received from the food shelf.
The food shelf didn't have dog food available for needy families, mainly because it didn't have the storage space for it, said Carol Leeman.
That lean winter left a lasting impression on their daughter, Sarah, who until then hadn't known what it was like to go without. Last October, Sarah came up with an idea to help Pillager area families in need who have pets.
Sarah Leeman played with three of her five cats -- Sabrina, Spice and Kiara -- Monday at her Pillager home. Leeman, who is homeschooled, has started the Precious Pets Parlor Project to collect donated dog and cat food for the Pillager Area Food Shelf.
Sarah started Precious Pets Parlor Project, an ambitious project to collect donated cat and dog food and bring it to the food shelf. A bright girl who skipped kindergarten, Sarah is homeschooled and runs her project like a non-profit business.
She contacts area businesses and asks for dog food donations, maintaining all her information on a computer accounting program. She keeps a database of the businesses that have agreed to donate dog food, sending them thank you notes. Her parents help her transport the food to the food shelf. The extra dog and cat food is stored at their home until the food shelf needs it. One of her biggest donors is SAVE Foods in Brainerd. Kmart and Pine Shadows also contributed donated pet food.
Sarah, who has names for every one of her pets, including her 12 fish, two dogs and five cats, said she started the project because she loves animals.
"We were just struggling the first year (in Pillager) and we know what it was like," said Sarah. "I want to work with animals all my life. I just love being around animals and helping animals makes me feel better as a person."
Carol said she's proud of her daughter. So far Sarah has collected 386 pounds of pet food for the food shelf. Her goal is to collect 1,000 pounds of food. Sarah and her parents deliver about 15 pounds of dog and cat food to the food shelf per week, which is being given out in 10-cup increments to about 20 Pillager area families each month.
Although Sarah said she doesn't want to take away from any donations that typically go to area animal shelters, like Heartland Animal Rescue Team in Baxter, the pre-teen feels there is a need that isn't being met when it comes to families in need. She said as long as animals need food, she'll find donors who are willing to help out.
"I'm hoping it will grow and we can keep food for all the animals, especially at Christmas," said Sarah.
To donate dog or cat food or money to Sarah's project, call Dave's Auto Detailing at 746-4334. Pet food donations also may be dropped off at the Pillager Area Family Center. Any cash donations dropped off at the family center should specify that the money be used for P.P.P.P. or Pet Food somewhere on the check.
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