A homeless man called Snippet Citrus looking for help. Lucky for him, Mary Lee Johnson answered the phone.
Johnson, 73, heads up Snippet, which subsidizes the cost of sterilizing dogs and cats for low-income residents. She knew precisely what to do.
With very few questions, she enrolled him in the program and before hanging up she wanted to make sure he had transportation to the veterinarian.
He promised nothing would stop him from bringing his dog, assuring Johnson that he had a ride.
On the day of the dog’s surgery, the man kept his promise. Riding in the back of a pickup truck in the pouring rain, the man and his dog made it on time.
“I want to help people that truly want to help their pets,” Johnson said.
For her work as the founder and president of Snippet Citrus, Mary Lee Johnson has been chosen as the Citrus County Chronicle’s 2017 Citizen of the Year. She was among many deserving nominees considered by the Chronicle Editorial Board.
Johnson says her passion is helping the community by helping pets.
Snippet Citrus is a nonprofit organization that subsidizes and arranges low-cost spay and neuter services for residents of Citrus County.
The program helps to combat the overpopulation of dogs and cats filling up the Citrus County Animal Shelter, Johnson said.
Volunteer Mary Alice Bauman has worked with Johnson since the start and said she is a genuine leader.
“For four years, I’ve watched Mary Lee’s devotion to our cause,” Bauman said. “She has a great sense of humor and is very passionate about it, and always wanting to do what is best for the animal and the people, too. It goes hand in hand.”
Johnson said it is the organization’s volunteer team that makes Snippet Citrus so successful.
Johnson decided to relocate to Sugarmill Woods 12 years ago from Broward County with her father.
“I was fairly young when I retired, and all my friends were still working so I called an old friend who lived here to visit, and I fell in love and quickly moved to Sugarmill Woods,” Johnson said.
She said the Nature Coast was a perfect place to retire from a 38-year career with the Broward County School District.
“When we pulled up, my father couldn’t believe how beautiful and untouched this area was,” Johnson said. “It was like stepping into Old Florida and so much different than the East Coast.”
She brought along her four-legged “children”: two rescue cats and her rescue dog, Gucci.
Her dad died four years later.
In 2013, after helping raise funds for the Crystal River Woman’s Club, Johnson and a friend decided they wanted to do something for the animals of Citrus County.
They set out to find out what Citrus County truly needed for pets by pulling together various leaders and volunteers with the Citrus County Animal Shelter.
“We came up with low-cost spay and neuter for our community because it’s a low-income area and unemployment is high,” Johnson said.
Johnson and her friend decided to start a nonprofit and raise money to help people who couldn’t afford to get their cats and dogs spayed or neutered.
The first surgery was scheduled in November 2013, and since then, the group has subsidized the sterilization of more than 2,700 dogs and 5,900 cats in Citrus County.
Johnson says Snippet works with local veterinarians who give them a small discount. Clients pay a nominal fee, while Snippet covers the remainder with grants and donations.
“I would like to mention the vets -- most of them have been with us since we began. Some of them are new and started with us right away,” Johnson said. “Petluv Non-Profit Spay Center, Crystal River Animal Hospital, TLC Animal Hospital, Countryside Animal Clinic, Dunnellon Animal Hospital and Humanitarians of Florida help with all of our feral cats.”
While the program targets low-income families, Johnson said, Snippet does not require proof of income.
“We don’t make people go out to chase down vouchers. We qualify them on the phone, put them on the computer and the vets can see the needed surgeries in real time,” Johnson said. “It’s easy for the client; it’s straightforward for the vets and so far has worked out to be a great system.”
The nonprofit’s mission is to stop pet homelessness in Citrus County and educate the community on the importance of proper pet care and spay and neuter, Johnson said.
She says she couldn’t share this message without all of the volunteers who help every day.
“The real way this has become successful is we have found so many like-minded people to volunteer,” Johnson said. “If you find your passion and find people with the same passion you can do something. It’s hard, it’s a lot of work, but it can be accomplished.”
For example, in 2015, she said folks wanted to know what to do about all the feral cats in Citrus.
So Johnson met Debbie Smith, an experienced cat handler with a group known as Feral Busters.
“When people have feral cats they feed, Debbie will go to their house, trap the cat, take them to the vets, get them spayed or neutered, get a rabies vaccine, tag their ear and deliver the cat back -- with a promise to continue taking care of the cat,” Johnson said.
Feral Busters had one of the busiest months in December, catching and sterilizing 69 feral cats. Since its inception, it has helped a total of 1,800 cats.
“Debbie Smith is amazing; she is one person who deserves an award for her hard work,” Johnson said.
Smith said the same thing about Snippet’s leader.
“Snippets is her baby, and she does a fantastic job,” Smith said. “I think it is wonderful about how they brought this to the community and how she is leading it. She is one who deserves an award.”
Two months ago, Snippet started Pet Promise, an educational program for second- and third-grade students that promotes responsible pet ownership. Johnson said to make a change it starts with the younger generations.
Students learn a curriculum on taking care of a pet -- and before they graduate with their Pet Promise, children create toys for dogs and cats at the local shelter during an after-school program.
“We hope the children bring the message back to their families,” Johnson said. “That is where change can happen.”
Volunteer Wanda Sentz thinks highly of Johnson’s leadership.
“Mary Lee is fantastic; she’s the heart of Snippet,” Sentz said. “Mary Lee does more than anybody in Snippet. She is very dedicated. There are no words to describe her as far as what she does for Snippet.”
Citrus County Animals Services operations supervisor Colleen Yarbrough said Snippet Citrus offers a valuable service.
“Spaying and neutering help on many levels. With overpopulation, as more animals get spayed less come to shelter. It also helps with good behavior which helps keep them in their home. It is a full circle; it doesn’t just stop with kittens and puppies,” Yarbrough said. “It takes the community; we don’t have the financial backing to do what Snippets does. They are a tremendous asset.”
Johnson said she plans to continue with Snippet’s mission.
“What makes me happy every day is seeing my animals when I wake up, and knowing I’m doing something for every pet in Citrus,” Johnson said. “I do this so I can help the community, which keeps me going.”
ON THE NET
- For more information on Snippet Citrus, visit www.snippetcitrus.com.
Previous winners of Citizen of the Year
- 2016 Doug Alexander
- 2015 Diane Damron
- 2014 Paul Cash
- 2013 Larry Gamble
- 2012 Art Jones
- 2011 Jewel Lamb
- 2010 Paul Mellini
- 2009 Brown Dumas Jr.
- 2008 Lace Blue-McLean and Andy Houston
- 2007 Barbara Mills
- 2006 Jean Grant
- 2005 Mike and Kautia Hampton
- 2004 Aaron Weaver
- 2003 Pete DeRosa
- 2002 Don Sutton
- 2001 Leroy Bellamy
- 2000 Ron and Beverly Drinkhouse
- 1999 Stan Olsen
- 1998 Gary Maidhof
- 1997 Chet Cole
- 1996 Curt Ebitz
- 1995 Laura Lou Fitzpatrick and John Lettow
- 1994 Peggy and Dave Pattillo
- 1993 Ray Darling and William Bunch
- 1992 Avis Craig
- 1991 Annie W. Johnson and Father James C. Hoge
- 1990 Ginger Wes
- 1989 David Langer and Phil Zellner
- 1988 Bob and Mary England
- 1987 Dr. Ed Dodge
- 1986 Wilson Burns and Steve Lamb
- 1985 Comprehensive Plan Advisory Board: Charles Miko, David Walker, Dixie Hollins, Tom Franklin, Rick Rollason, Robert Henigar and Clark Stillwell
- 1984 Ruth Levins
- 1983 Sam Tamposi
- 1982 Judge William F. Edwards
- 1981 Hank and Miriam Cohen
- 1980 The Rev. Roger Shively