XENIA, Ohio – Just like Christmas morning, 10 children sat, smiling, bright-eyed and anxiously awaiting their gifts. But these weren’t like any presents—no unwrapping or batteries needed, just tender loving care… and maybe a treat or two along the way. It was time for them to meet their new best friends, their service dogs, who would change their lives instantly from the moment they met.
Their hearts seemed to melt, as each child first touched the top of their dog’s soft, furry head. And as tails wagged and treats were given in abundance, the bond began to grow between child and service dog.
Joel was the first to meet his Jubilee, a Papillon. Tiny and full of energy, Jubilee, known as JuJu Bean, jumped right into her boy’s lap. A smile took over his face and her tail wagging took over her whole body. It was an immediate connection.
Just before Andrew met Victory, a Golden Retriever he said to his mom, “I’ve been waiting for her my whole life!” His mom, Michelle smiled, simply looking to her son sitting next to her and saying, “So has she.”
By the end of introductions Andrew was sitting on the floor rubbing Victory’s belly—Victory smiling through her thick fur.
“This has been amazing—she’s wonderful. She did exactly what I needed which was to connect with him,” said Michelle about Victory after 11 days of training with their new dog.
Sophia, a quiet blonde girl sat patiently. Her piercing blue eyes stared off into the distance, trying to catch a glimpse of her own little Papillon pal, Joey. Once they met, she held him, hugged him and kissed his soft fur. She carried him around like a living doll that she could finally call her own best friend.
From the moment that Abigail met Joska, it was a bouncy road! Joska wanted nothing more than to play and as Abigail sat on the floor with her, hugging the yellow Labrador Retriever, her excited tail wagged in Abigail’s face, pushing her bob-cut of shiny black hair from side to side, and nearly knocking off her small glasses. She laughed as Joska kissed her face.
“[It’s been] a long, but great two weeks. I will miss seeing dogs romp around together. We just love our dog,” said Abigail and Joska’s mom, Jeanne at graduation about the connection between the dogs in class.
Asha, a Golden Retriever wasn’t just met by her new boy William, but also by his two younger, equally eager sisters. But Asha was happy to share the attention with all three children as they petted her soft, golden fur, which was reciprocated by loads of wet laps to their faces.
“It’s been a life-changing experience—$13,000 was nothing for what you gave us,” said William and Ashas’s mom, Lori.
Big, furry, black and gray, curly haired Boss, a Goldendoodle, was more than ready to meet his girl Danielle and his whole new family. They immediately fell in love and Boss was more than happy to lie down, roll over and receive belly rub after belly rub for the remainder of the morning.
Alexa, with a head full of curly hair and glasses mounted on her face, just above the smile that situated from ear to ear, sat bouncing, waiting, not so patiently for her BFF Kizzy, a black Labrador Retriever. She giggled as the large dog kissed her hands for more treats, as she sat upon the wicker couch with her mom by her side. She could not erase the smile from her face the entire morning.
“We would’ve never guessed how much we’d grow to love this dog so fast. The friendship and bond is amazing. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is what we needed to do,” said Alexa and Kizzy’s mom, Christy.
Nathan, a shy little boy, was very cautious about meeting such a big animal that was Sprint, a Golden Retriever. He sat next to his mom, with his tiny hands folded up close to his face watching as his mom petted his new service dog. His fear subsided throughout the next 11 days.
Alex, 25, met Chantay aka Zuzu, another Golden Retriever with a nervous smile. He sat in his chair, legs crossed as his new dog was ushered to him. His parents on either side of him gave Chantay treats and encouraged their son to do the same. Once he did, he laughed, as the slobbery tongue of his new best friend tickled his treat-filled hand.
CJ rolled into 4 Paws in his wheelchair, pushed by his mom. Once inside, his smile was luminous and contagious. And that was before he even set his sights on Dudley, a black Labrador Retriever. His smile moved from his mouth and took over not only his face, but also his entire body, as he jumped in his seat, excited to pet his new dog for the first time ever.
After 11 days of training, the day had finally come for 10 kids and 10 dogs to take their relationship to the next level, as an official child/service dog team.
Graduation day commenced with some peanut butter kisses as teams, William and Asha and Alex and Chantay, shared peanut butter from cheek and finger to dog tongue.
It was a packed house, including foster families, volunteers, family and friends of those in class and all 4 Paws for Ability staff. All who cared for the dogs who were graduating shared in the joy and solace knowing that they played a part in making a child’s life better.
Miami University students, Kristin McNamara and Kristy Lind came bearing Christmas gifts for each child. As they received their graduation certificate, they received a wrapped present, full of candy and other goodies, from the two students who fostered Champagne, a Golden Retriever during the fall semester.
“I didn’t foster anyone from the December class. Our group just wanted to do something for the kiddos,” said McNamara, a special education major, who helped start up the 4 Paws for Ability’s Campus Program at Miami.
McNamara witnessed the emotion and gratitude exuded by the parents.
“Graduation day is really a day of pure happiness. When you look around the room there is not one person who doesn’t have a smile on their face. Although there is some sadness, graduation day is the day you always dream of as fosters. You see your dog up there with their kid getting their diploma, and your dream finally starts to become true,” she said.
So many dreams came true. It was a magical day at 4 Paws for Ability. The holiday spirit was in-house that day.
“Merry Christmas! This is the best Christmas ever… priceless gift to our family,” said Danielle and Boss’s mom, Kim. She said that knowing that there are other dogs and families like us, they don’t feel alone anymore.
4 Paws dogs gave them a sense of belonging and security… maybe that is the greatest gift of all. As the story goes, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight.”
-Photos & article by Jessica Noll-Korczyk
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