Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 7:00 AM
What do prison inmates….and children with disabilities have in common? There’s no punch-line but the answer is a bit warm and fuzzy….with a wet nose. Ideastream’s Brian Bull explains the mystery.
In the sunny backyard of his Litchfield home, 15-year-old Mario Study hangs out with his parents and brother. The family’s playing fetch with a bouncy golden retriever named Zen.
“Go get!” yells Mario, as his father hurls a tennis ball into the yard. Zen scampers off the deck and into the grass.
It’s almost a typical scene between a boy and his dog...but neither Mario nor Zen are typical. Mario sits in a wheelchair, due to muscular dystrophy…a disease where the muscles become weaker and weaker as the victim gets older.
“Lights on! Zen, lights on,” commands Mario. With the nudge of a snout, the lights in Mario’s room illuminate. Zen is a service dog, trained to do tasks that Mario can’t do on his own.
“He’ll turn on lights and pick stuff off the ground,” explains Mario. “Stays by me, and lays down, other stuff. “He’s pretty amazing to me…mostly a good friend, actually.”
Zen works for Mario, and only Mario. This includes helping him get dressed and undressed, and accompanying him, all while avoiding distractions. As Mario and his brother Daryl Jr. get ready to head into town, the dog climbs into the family van and stays put as a motorized lift brings the teen and his wheelchair inside the vehicle.
The boys’ father, Daryl Study Sr., really likes Zen…but accepts that he’s not a family pet.
“He’s the dog I always wanted but never had time to get,” shrugs Daryl. “But he’s not mine. It’s Mario’s dog. It has to be Mario’s dog.”
Zen is one of many furry ambassadors from “Working Animals Giving Service For Kids”, or WAGS4Kids.
Wendy Nelson is executive director of the program. The non-profit charity is based in Berea, and helps families get service animals, for many situations.
“One of the tracks that we prepare dogs for is mobility assistance for kids just like Mario. The other track we take with some of these dogs is a thing called a skilled companion animal. Largely for children with autism, but there’s a variety of emotional and other kinds of disabilities for which skilled companioning is a big, sorta new wave of dog training.”
Which brings us to the North Central Correctional Complex, in Marion Ohio. Here, selected inmates train dogs for Wags4Kids. Outside one of the dorms in this medium-security facility, several prisoners train their dogs with special exercises. With hot breeze blowing through the dry yellow grass, Wendy Nelson coaches an inmate on how to train his “assistance dog”.
“Dowwnn….” says the inmate.
“No, no, no. You told him sit. You didn’t get the treat out fast enough…” says Nelson. She and the inmate start the lesson over.
One of the inmates is Jerry Blaze, from Toledo. He’s in for robbery. Jerry’s learning to handle a reddish, curly double-doodle mix named “Angel"…so that she can be a companion for a child with autism. He’s been with Wags4Kids for two years.
“I basically lived a selfish, self-centered lifestyle in alcohol and drug abuse,” says Blaze. “I knew when I found myself here that I had to elicit some sort of change in my life. What a better way to give back to society than through helping children from inside the confines of this institution?”
Another inmate is Steven Scott Farley from Columbus. He’s serving time for illegal possession of a weapon. He’s training a golden retriever named Micah, who’ll go to a girl with muscular dystrophy.
“He has a brace on his back, it almost looks like a seeing eye dog,” says Farley. “She’ll use him to help her stand and walk, and if she was to fall down or something like that, the dog’s trained to come over and help her get back up.”
I ask Farley if it’s hard to see the dogs go and move on, and if he becomes attached to them at all.
“Micah? Yeah…definitely. He’s probably one of the favorite dogs that I’ve worked with. I’m gonna miss him when he does leave, but I know that they’re gonna bring me another dog and you just fall in love all over again.”
It’s a necessary goodbye for the trainers, one that former inmate Josh Allender’s done again and again. He trained Zen for Mario Study, while behind bars for robbery. Now Josh is out and going straight, though he still checks in on how the dog is working out for the Studys back in Litchfield.
“Call him, put him where you want him to be…” instructs Allender.
“Zen! Come!” beckons Mario.
“Make sure you give him a lot of praise…” adds Allender.
Allender credits Wags4Kids for helping him become a better person.
“It made me realize that it’s good to help others. Know what’s life’s really about, what it is to be a man.”
Those with Mario Study’s type of muscular dystrophy rarely live beyond 30. But Mario doesn’t dwell on that, nor does his father Daryl ….who contends with an affliction of his own: cerebral palsy.
“A long time ago when I was a kid, I just decided that I was going to do what I could do. And I didn’t care what people thought,” says Daryl Sr. “And Mario reacts much that way. He makes the best of it. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He doesn’t use it as a crutch. It’s just not in him that way.”
There’s no real mystery here….just a story about the power of healing through unexpected connections.
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