At the beginning of 2013, I had the honor of being introduced to the Cleveland non-profit organization Wags 4 Kids – an insanely dedicated, selfless group of people who train and place mobility service & skilled companion animals for kids with disabilities in the local community. Since then, I’ve come to know and love the people that are behind that organization – and have also gained an even deeper amount of respect for the way that they dedicate their LIVES to training these dogs and supporting the families that they are placed with.
And just before 2013 came to a close last month, I had the absolute honor of meeting another one of those families whose lives have been impacted by WAGS. This was the second family that I had been able to meet in person – and after talking to the Mom of the clan over phone and email in the weeks prior, it was obvious to me that I was about to meet some pretty fantastic people. And I was right.
It was an incredibly cold and snowy December day southeast of Cleveland for session day … but the minute that I walked into this family’s front door, I was immediately warmed by the comfort of their Christmas-decorated home and by their family’s natural, welcoming nature. And of course, I was given a nice, slobbery, warm welcome by the beautifully-blonde-coated Golden Retriever – Micah – a WAGS 4 Kids dog who was placed with this family to support 16-year-old Courtney – who, at the age of 9, was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy – a genetic disease characterized by progressive and degenerative muscle weakness.
In the first minutes in the home, I spent some time with Courtney’s Mom, Amy, and her two younger sisters while Courtney finished getting ready (Courtney has a passion for fashion and make up … and I secretly loved that she was still putting some final touches on when I got there!) What was neat about getting to spend some time with them for a bit before Courtney arrived was seeing how this dog is more than just a service dog for Courtney … he’s a member of the family that likes treats, likes his belly rubbed, and likes to lay around and relax, and loves the rest of this family up just like any other dog.
… But the minute that Courtney arrived in the room, Mr. Micah knew his buddy was there and was ready to be at her side.
And while this sweet dog is certainly there to provide support for Courtney in some of her daily tasks … things like standing solidly next to her so that she can use him for support when standing up from sitting on the floor … what is most incredibly obvious is that there is a bond between these two that goes beyond him being a physical support for her. They have a true friendship in every definition of the word.
Within minutes of meeting Courtney, there’s no doubt the first thing you see is a gorgeous beauty who just lights up a room the minute she walks in it. But within seconds of interacting with her, you realize that there is a beauty inside of her that radiates even more brightly. You will always hear me say how impressed I am when I meet a teenager who can carry on an adult conversation, answer questions in a candid manner and simply interact with you with poise and with a genuine heart… and Courtney just exudes every single ounce of that.
And because of all of that, you don’t immediately see a person with a disability. Which, in a lot of ways is a beautiful thing, but for Courtney – sometimes causes her to experience some unwarranted push back from strangers who might not understand why she might need additional assistance. She told me a story about how she and her friends parked in a handicapped parking spot – and a woman walked up to them, knocked on their window and began to scold them for parking there and accused them of taking “her grandmother’s” handicapped tag to be able to park in such spaces. Or – the time that she needed to use an elevator an event and a security guard basically said that she could use the stairs like everyone else.
It’s something that Courtney deals with on a day to day basis… but I only heard these stories because I had asked her some questions at the end of our session – not because she was complaining or asking for sympathy. In reality, during our two hours together – we talked about normal things you would talk about with a teenager… like how much she likes to take pictures on her phone and edit them, about her cute wardrobe and where she got things, and (me asking her) how on earth she gets such a flawless look with her makeup! Not only could I have hung out with her for hours, but getting to take her photograph? It was a photographer’s dream.
We decided to combat the cold and go outside for a couple of pictures with the family. While it was bitter outside – the snow was so incredibly beautiful on this day that we just decided to grin and bear it! And I’m so glad we did… if for no other picture than this one that shows that Micah looks at Courtney with just as much love with which she looks at him…
The rest of the fam joined us for some of the outdoor fun. I’m told this is a rare shot of these two sisters hugging – could have fooled me!
What’s an even cooler part of this story is that Mom Amy actually decided to become one of the trainers who helps develop the WAGS 4 Kids dogs for other families. In addition to that, she started her own non-profit “Think of Ability” whose mission it is to enrich the lives of those with muscular dystrophy by providing them with the tools that will enhance and restore their independence. She’s one heck of a selfless person… not to mention one heck of a Mom. These girls (and this dog) adore her.
In my 45 minute drive back home – I couldn’t help but reflect on the family that I just met, about the sweet soul that Courtney is, and about the love and the bonds that exist within that home. It’s always a testament to the people you meet when you walk away feeling like you’ve known them forever, and that you want to call them friends. And there’s no doubt that I felt that in leaving them that day. I also felt an even stronger appreciation and respect for the way that WAGS 4 Kids gives these families such a beautiful gift. Their work is ensuring that these kids can feel a sense of independence … and maybe more importantly… they always know that they have a friendship that’s unwavering.
An enormous thanks to Amy, Courtney and the family for welcoming me into your home.
Learn more about WAGS 4 Kids and Think of Ability … There are so many easy ways to give back throughout the year with various events – stay up to date on the Facebook pages below
WAGS 4 KIDS
THINK OF ABILITY