Serving a ‘paw-sitive’ purpose

Service Paws of Central PA makes independence, freedom possible

Courtesy photo / Leslie Kelly relaxes with her hearing dog, Nokie. Kelly founded Service Paws of Central PA in 2011.

It is easy to take the many seemingly simple things in life for granted.

Taking a stroll and knowing there is someone walking behind you. Knowing that an emergency is happening because an alarm is heard sounding. Being able to effortlessly confront new people and places is something many do not often think about.

Those and many other situations — which can be life-threating — are part of the reasons why individuals obtain service dogs. Service Paws of Central PA knows the importance of service animals and works to help people afford and care for these exceptional animals. By helping to purchase the pets and assist in treating the medical conditions of these beloved companions, the organization provides freedom and security to many individuals.

Service Paws of Central PA was founded by Leslie Kelly in 2011. Kelly became hard of hearing as a young girl after an unfortunate playground accident, and later became deaf as an adult. She took trips frequently because of her job and realized she could benefit from a hearing dog to assist her while she was on the road.

“I traveled a lot to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Pittsburgh — all sorts of different places for work. Many places didn’t have a handicap accessible visual fire alarm or visual alarm clock, and deaf people are visual because we don’t hear,” said Kelly.

She obtained her first service dog, a yellow lab named Sarah, to be her ears in hotels and the other places she went. Sarah accompanied Kelly on her work trips, to the office and elsewhere. She felt very fortunate to have Sarah with her.

“It was just amazing to get her. A person who can hear, can hear people speaking behind you — I can’t. If you lose your hearing, your eyes become your ears. With a hearing dog, I can tell when someone is walking behind me. I see my service dog look up, follow my dog’s gaze and see someone standing there. If a flock of ducks fly overhead, my dog will look. I didn’t know they made a sound or were there before, but my dog looked up and so I did. I see them now, and things I would have missed otherwise. The service dog is my ears,” Kelly said.

Sarah was Kelly’s ears and companion for many years.

When she grew old and passed, Kelly missed her and the help she provided. Kelly desperately wanted to have another service dog, but the cost of service dogs ranges from $5,000 to more than $30,000, depending on the needs of the owner. Kelly knew this and set out to raise funds to secure a new service dog for herself.

“I needed to raise $5,000 and I thought how can I do that? I collected tabs from soda pop containers and aluminum cans. I saved up all of the tops. The community collected tabs also and was amazing and helpful. They supported me so I was able to get money for my second hearing dog,” she said.

After Kelly secured funding she was able to get her second hearing dog, Nokie. The community kept contributing to Kelly’s cause, even after she Nokie was home with her.

She said, “The community kept giving me tabs and I wasn’t sure what to do. After I got Nokie, I had $800 in my service dog savings account and I was trying to figure out what to do with the money. I kept on collecting tabs and a woman called about a family in town who needed help for their 4-year-old daughter who has a severe peanut allergy. I gave her $700 and the community kept on collecting tabs, so we developed Service Paws of Central PA.”

Joe Fagnani, president of the Service Paws of Central PA board, said Kelly started the organization to assist others with the great expense of service pets. “She wanted to help people pay for service dogs, which are quite expensive,” he said.

Fagnani, who is blind, has known Kelly for close to 20 years. He became involved in the organization with her to aid others. “I want to help people get service dogs. Guide dogs are free, so I haven’t had these costs, but for a lot of people, having a service dog is a life changer,” he said.

The Service Paws of Central PA board, which now has about 12 members, also provides financial support for accredited service dogs who have extraordinary medical bills. They are expanding their reach, educating the public about what service dogs do and don’t do, and about the rights of owners and service dogs.

The association recently connected a service dog, Visa, with an 8-year-old boy in Bedford. Liam Clark, who suffers from extreme anxiety disorder, was united with Visa in June.

Liam’s mother, Tammy Clark, recounted the first time Liam met Visa. She could see an immediate change in him.

“There was a difference in Liam’s personality from when he sat in the chair until he saw the dog. I could not believe the instant difference. He was safe and knew he had a friend,” she said.

Visa has given Liam the power to be more relaxed and to not be as fearful of new situations. “It’s an answer to my prayers; she’s given my son a better quality of life. She’s given him the opportunity to do things that otherwise would limit him. She’s definitely given him more self-confidence and made him feel so much safer,” Clark said.

Like Visa, the service dogs that Service Paws of Central PA helps fund are trained for a variety of disabilities and medical conditions. The service pets work alongside individuals assisting them with tasks, alerting them and providing comfort to them.

The board of Service Paws of Central PA is proud to provide this assistance and hopes to continue its mission by serving more people. It started with an eight-county service area, and has grown to service 16 counties.

“We want to do more. There aren’t too many organizations in the country that help people purchase service dogs. We’re hoping to expand more as we grow,” said Fagnani.

Kelly feels blessed to have Nokie and hopes to continue to provide life-changing service dogs to individuals in the region.

“The community helped me and made me want to work harder. I want to keep giving back to help make others’ lives easier,” she said.

A CLOSER LOOK

Want to help others in need of a service dog? Know someone who may need a service dog?

Service Paws of Central PA raises money through donations, grants, fundraising dinners, collection of aluminum tabs and through an annual golf fundraiser.

If you are interested in helping or donating to the organization, or if you would like an application for a service dog, visit: www.servicepawsofcentralpa.org.

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