Hometown Hero: A walk around the mall with Darbster volunteer Uncle Ross

Ross Mingarelli walks around the Mall of New Hampshire with adoptee Smiley on Wednesday, June 11, 2024.

Ross Mingarelli walks around the Mall of New Hampshire with adoptee Smiley on Wednesday, June 11, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Ross Mingarelli walks around the Mall of New Hampshire with adoptee Smiley on Wednesday.

Ross Mingarelli walks around the Mall of New Hampshire with adoptee Smiley on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Ross Mingarelli walks around the Mall of New Hampshire with adoptee Smiley on Wednesday, June 11, 2024.

Ross Mingarelli walks around the Mall of New Hampshire with adoptee Smiley on Wednesday, June 11, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By SOPHIE LEVENSON

Monitor staff

Published: 06-13-2024 5:16 PM

Ross Mingarelli says he likes dogs more than people, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t kind to both.

He’s a man who does things by himself. He operates CandleTree, his store on Main Street, as a one-man operation. He drives his ax-throwing truck solo. He runs his tree service company with his own two hands.

But he has a hard time thinking about lonely dogs. So every week, usually on Mondays and Tuesdays, Mingarelli drives between the Darbster Rescue locations in Manchester and Chichester to check in on his four-legged friends who need a little love.

“This is when the dogs need us the most,” Mingarelli said.

Mingarelli thinks of himself as “Uncle Ross” for all the dogs that come in and out of Darbster, a nonprofit with the mission to limit cat and dog euthanasia by promoting adoption. Its New Hampshire locations thrive: Mingarelli says dogs are usually in and out of Darbster within a week. It’s bittersweet, for “Uncle Ross” — as much as he loves seeing pets in safe homes, he finds it hard to say goodbye to some of the dogs after getting to know them.

Darbster needs more than dog walkers: The organization takes volunteers to help with adoption events at local businesses, to transport animals between locations and to foster pets, too. The shelter frequently partners with Feathered Friend Brewing in Concord (which has nothing to do with birds), where volunteers introduce pets to guests and talk about adoption opportunities.

“[Volunteers] are just as important as any of our staff members, because they care about the animals the same way,” said Darbster operations manager Andrew Doyle. “We wouldn’t be able to do probably 50% of what we do without our volunteers, so they’re a big part of why our events have expanded so much and, in turn, our adoptions.”

But as grateful as Doyle is for his volunteers, he could always use more.

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“There’s always something that we need help with … even if it’s just spending a little extra time with a shy cat or dog,” Doyle said.

That’s exactly what Mingarelli does. This week, his charge was a dog named Smiley, a mother of two puppies — Usher and Mick Jagger — who were just adopted. Mingarelli met a timid Smiley, who has zero applications for adoption, on Tuesday morning at the Mall of New Hampshire. When they met, Smiley’s caramel-colored tail was tucked between her legs, but by 1 p.m., Mingarelli was sitting on the floor of her pen while the dog happily nuzzled him. Mingarelli draped an “Adopt Me” vest over her back and hooked her up to a bright-blue leash for a walk around the mall.

It’s certainly a sight to see: A 39-year-old man in green cargo pants and orange-laced work boots, his muscled arms both sleeved in tattoos, walking a dog in circles around an indoor mall.

“This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Mingarelli said.

He kept walking, letting Smiley lead. Her nose perked up at the smell of sugar-scented soap, and she tried to pull them into Bath and Body Works; Mingarelli tugged away, and led Smiley into the Apple Store instead, where a woman in a green shirt was staring keenly at Smiley. Mingarelli made the introduction, but warned the woman: “Let her approach you. She’s a little nervous.”

As they walked, Mingarelli fielded questions about his work with the dogs: Why does he do it? Why did he start? He didn’t have much of an answer. For Mingarelli, there are no ulterior motives, no grand narratives drawing him to volunteer work. He just likes doing it. He thinks it’s the right thing to do.

“He just appeared out of nowhere,” Doyle said.

Mingarelli once took a dog named Athena to the Build-a-Bear in the mall and had her “pick out” her own bear. He played with a bulldog named Sly until he turned from a sad, frightened animal to a happy-go-lucky pet, and got adopted. In the spring, he held a dog toy drive in his CandleTree store, then dressed up as the Easter bunny and delivered them to all the dogs at Darbsters.

He has never asked Darbsters for anything in return for his work.

“Simple is good,” he said. Mingarelli gets his everything bagels from Bagel Works with just butter — simple, indeed.

“There’s so much stuff in the world,” he said. “When I come here, it’s all that matters.”

This seems to be Mingarelli’s one complaint. He finds that people do not live up to dogs because they are often self-centered. Rudeness bugs him. “I’m big on manners,” he said. A lot of the time, when walking in and out of Bagel Works, he notes that other customers don’t hold the door. Or people don’t wave when a car stops to let them cross the street.

“If we all had manners, this world would be a hell of a lot better place,” Mingarelli said.

But he, for one, is doing his part. And the world sometimes letting him down has never been an excuse for Mingarelli to be unkind.

On Saturdays, he turns a bubble machine on in his storefront on Main Street because “people always smile when they see the bubbles.” He does “a lot of random giveaways,” too — during the holidays, he handed out children’s toys from CandleTree.

“People like that, and it’s fun,” Mingarelli said. “It has nothing to do with candles.”

Smiley was getting tired. Mingarelli led her back into Darbster, sat down on a couch and watched her as she considered greeting a few humans wandering around the store. In a few hours, the three-year-old dog had opened up enormously. Still, if anyone frightened Smiley, she skipped back over to her Uncle Ross, where she knew she’d be safe.

More information

If you are interested in volunteering with Darbster Rescue, visit Darbsterfoundation.com. Navigate to the “Volunteer & Foster” buttons under the Doggy and Kitty tabs, hit the “Donate” button or click on “Adopt.”