Maryland has honored a Calvert County resident who continued to raise funds for animal shelters and other causes online even after the pandemic forced her to pause in-person charity events, including an annual brunch for people and their pets.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot named Heather Maertens one of the 2020 recipients of the William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award in a video announcement Thursday. The award, named for the former Maryland governor, is given out each year to one resident or organization from every county in the state, plus Baltimore City.

Franchot commended Maertens for continuing “to help the most vulnerable in her community” last year despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.

In addition to raising funds for animal shelters, Maertens, a jewelry designer and owner of Maertens Fine Jewelry and Gifts in Lusby, also donates portions of the sales of specially designed pieces to Calvert Hospice and the Brem Foundation, which seeks to save lives from breast cancer via early detection.

“Heather, we certainly can take a lesson from you on what it means to be of service to every member of your community,” Franchot said.

Kim Harkins, who manages Maertens’ store, said she has “a million stories” of her sister-in-law helping animals. For example, there was the time when Maertens pulled over on Interstate-95 on the way to the Kings Dominion amusement park to try to save a dog that had become trapped on the median. (Harkins said the dog was rescued.)

“If there’s a deer on the side of the road that needs help, you know, she’ll sit there with it in her car and wait for someone to come,” Harkins said. “Her heart just goes out to any animal.”

Maertens has held brunch fundraisers for shelters almost every year since the first event was held in 2008. At “Breakfast at Sniffany’s,” people are encouraged to bring their pets. It’s mostly a dog-centric affair, though some bring their cats. One time an attendee brought a pig, Harkins said.

Tickets to the brunches run around $35 and include breakfast, a drink ticket good for a mimosa or bloody mary and lots of quality time with canines.

The brunches feature contests for smallest dog, biggest dog, best trick and even best dressed. The latter has seen pooches sporting everything from superhero costumes to bow ties to dresses. Some owners and their dogs have even come wearing matching outfits. Workers from animal shelters are present at most events, bringing with them animals in need of a home.

“It’s mostly to raise awareness about rescues, but also to just also to just come out and have fun with your pets, too,” Maertens said.

Maertens has five dogs herself, most of them adopted: three spaniels, a terrier and her newest, Petunia, a pug she adopted from South Korea. Petunia is the baby of the group at two years old; the eldest are nearing 15.

“I kind of collect the old grumpy ones a little bit,” Maertens said.

Maertens was inspired to help shelters by coming to know some of the people who run them. One woman, she said, focuses on rescuing older dogs from shelters that might otherwise be overlooked for adoption or euthanized — dogs needing expensive medical care but otherwise have “some good years ahead.”

“I know people that are running rescues, and they get so emotionally and physically exhausted and they spend so much of their own personal money on the rescues that I just knew there was a huge need to support them,” Maertens said.

Many members of Maertens’ community pitch in for the brunches. Restaurants donate food and drinks. Artists contribute paintings for a charity auction. Attendees can chip in extra to get professional photos taken of them with their pets; the photographers donate their time. And some of Maertens’ family and friends volunteer at the events, as do staff from the jewelry store.

“It’s really a group effort,” Maertens said.

When the pandemic put the brunches on hold for two years, animal shelters’ needs didn’t go away. Maertens said she and the other volunteers started holding smaller, “impromptu” fundraisers online to meet pressing issues such as surgery costs as they arose.

Maertens took heart in the fact that even though the in-person events had moved online, many of the same people still showed up to help animals — a sentiment shared by Carolyn Stanbery, a longtime friend.

“It’s obviously a lot more fun when we can all be together,” Stanbery said, “but it’s also good to know that even though there has been a pandemic, it hasn’t completely shut down the efforts that Heather and the group of us that support her have put forth.

“She’s continued to move forward and find ways to help people and I just think that says a lot about her character and the amazing woman that she is,” Stanbery said.

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