GULFPORT -- This is a love story. No, two love stories. OK, three love stories.
When Long Beach school teacher Cathryn Nicholas met Max, it was love at first sight. It was one of those online romances. Nicholas was living in Maryland a couple of years ago when she first saw Max, a mixed breed on the web pages of the Humane Society of South Mississippi.
At the time, she had only one friend on the Coast but she came to visit. Also on her itinerary, a visit to SMHS to see Max in person. Max, she said, had been at the shelter too long.
"I brought him a Star Wars blanket because I thought somebody would see it and him and realize they were meant to be," she said. That's one thing Nicholas believes in -- things that are meant to be.
Turns out, it was her and Max who were meant to be. Max, resplendent in his Star Wars blanket, was adopted the next day. But it didn't last. Too rough, his temporary family decided and back to the shelter he came.
She sponsored his adoption fee. Still, no one chose Max.
"At that point I knew Max was meant to be in my life," she said. "Then one day, a friend of a friend, now a friend of mine, sent me a message offering to foster Max until I moved," she said. A few days later, Max, was in essence, all hers.
Six months later, she moved to Mississippi and Max moved in with her.
"He loved every second of his life with me and he was so very spoiled and loved," she said. "He loved every person, animal, and thing he met. He loved food and anything that looked or smelled like it. I got to celebrate two birthdays with him, which I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. You never would have known he was 15."
Love story number 2
It also was during her time with Max she met Harley Warren, the love of her life.
But she had no way of knowing the happy times with Max were drawing to a close. The couple left Max with friends when they had to travel. And while they were away, Max was attacked by another dog and severely injured. They were able to return home in time to kiss Max one last time and tell him once again how much he was loved.
He died a few hours later.
It was, she said, "the hardest, most traumatic thing I've ever gone through." She feared she was sliding into depression.
"I knew I had to do something positive," she said. "I decided to start a fund-raiser to sponsor 15 Lonely Heart Dogs at HSSM, one for every year Max was on this Earth."
Lonely heart dogs are those who have been at the shelter for more than 30 days. They raised $1,000, put $750 toward adoption fees and donated $250 to Gulfport Veterinary Hospital, the hospital that cared for Max. Nicholas also began volunteering at the shelter.
And, number 3
And the couple found a Lonely Heart of their own, a 9-year-old named Sierra.
"She was the oldest in the shelter," said Warren, a George County native who works in the Saints equipment room. "She'd been in and out five or six times."
She joined two older cats at their home in Long Beach.
"At first they didn't get along," he said. "Now they cuddle and eat together."
Now Warren and Nicholas are getting married in March. To celebrate, rather than ask for the usual household items and kitchen gadgets, they put pet supplies on their wedding registry.
On Thursday, they dropped off two car loads of food, litter, toys, leashes, just about anything a new pet owner might need.
In an extraordinary show of willpower, Sierra snagged a single toy for herself as the donations piled up in their home.
"She guarded the pile," said Warren. "She made sure the cats didn't touch it."
Now, they're starting Max's Mission in conjunction with HSSM. The plan is to pay half the adoption fees for five lonely hearts a month.
It's off to a good start. As Warren and Nicholas were delivering the donations, a couple from Diamondhead was adopting a lonely heart, a border collie mix, who had been in Max's Mission.
"We have been dogless for more than a year," said Mary Tooker, who with her husband, Tom, was waiting to take Phoebe home.
"We went to lunch and decided to come here," said Tom Tooker. They had been looking for a border collie elsewhere without success. "This is a wonderful breed. They're so smart."
When they learned Max's Mission had paid the adoption fee, they paid it forward, donating an adoption fee to the next lonely heart at the shelter.