The Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) raised money to continue its mission of pairing people with disabilities with their perfect service dog last night at the northeast region Hearts & Heroes gala Thursday night at New York City's Grand Hyatt.
During the gala it was announced that Henry Schein Animal Health is forming a partnership with CCI to help the volunteer puppy raisers and CCI veterinarians pay for the puppies' expenses while they are in training.
The organization will provide a "Henry Schein Cares-Canine Companions Puppy Raiser Care Package" to the veterinarians and puppy raisers which will include products and coupons critical to the raising of a healthy puppy
Henry Schein also announced that it is launching a national fundraising campaign with a $50,000 commitment, excluding the value of the kits themselves.
"The puppy raiser devotes so much time, energy and personal financial resources for the benefit of people needing assistance, so we think it is only fitting to support that generosity with this gift," Stanley M. Bergman, chairman of the board and CEO of Henry Schein, Inc., the parent company of Henry Schein Animal Health, said in a statement. "The veterinarian, as the health care partner of the puppy raiser, also contributes to the betterment of society by providing the care needed to ensure the puppy grows into a working assistance dog."
Graduates with service dogs, puppy raisers, volunteers and supporters also gathered together at the Hearts & Heroes gala to participate in an auction to raise money to keep the non-profit organization's mission alive.
The service dogs cost more than $45,000 each to raise and train. The organization sustains itself primarily on the donations of supporters.
"It's just so humbling," said Kevin Tinsley, a speaker at the gala. His daughter, Jazmin, has a CCI service dog to help her be more independent despite her cerebral palsy.
"Everyone is just so nice and generous. I can't even imagine," he said. "To donate this much and not even get anything in return - that's amazing."
Jazmin accompanied her dad on stage when he delivered a heartwarming speech describing the way Jazmin's dog, Ohio, completely transformed his nearly non-verbal teen daughter into a more social person.
After his speech, Jazmin came to the podium to thank the audience.
At times it can be difficult to understand what Jasmine is saying because she is nearly non-verbal, but her dad quickly translated: "Jazmin says thank you everyone and Ohio is the best dog ever."
Speakers Debra Dougherty, northeast region executive director; Linda Schmidt, Fox 5 NY news reporter; John Miller, national board chairman; Paul Mundell, CCI's CEO; and Davey Stone, vice president of Henry Schein Animal Health, all noted in their respective speeches that it's impossible to talk about the testimonial stories of the recipients without getting emotional.
Cara Miller, another speaker with a CCI service dog, touched the hearts of everyone in the room with her story of life before and after she met her hearing dog, Turf.
"Born almost profoundly deaf I would question myself, the security of my surroundings. I was never completely sure I was safe or knew entirely what was going on around me," Miller explained.
"I always felt less informed; not aware of what was happening due to my hearing loss. Sometimes I felt that I was missing something. I'd often have to guess or fill in the blanks. Now I know that 'something' was a hearing dog."
With the help of her first hearing dog, Maya, and now Turf, Miller had the opportunity to move forward and life a successful life. Miller has a Ph.D in clinical psychology and is employed by Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
"To say that my life changed is such an understatement," said Miller. "I shed years, and years, and years of worry and anxiety and replaced them with excitement, exploration and ease. I felt lighter, I felt more free and I started living in the present instead of worrying so much about the future."
Betsy Allison, another Hearts & Heroes speaker, came to the podium to explain how her dog, Morrow II, services her entire U.S. Paralympic Sailing Team.
"[Morrow] gives our team a renewed sense of confidence every time they go sailing. Yes, we can do this; yes, we can do it better; and yes, what we are doing every day matters," said Allison.
"He grounds us no matter how panicked or fearful one of our disabled athletes may find themselves. Morrow reminds us that in this very moment every single day we're not alone. And that's so important for every one of our sailors."
Speaker U.S. Staff Sergeant Sam Cila, who lost part of his left arm while at war overseas in Baghdad on July 4, 2005, also gave his testimony about his "teammate" service dog, Jillian, who taught him how to live after returning from war.
"For a long time after my military service I was lost. Lost without a team, lost without a mission, wondering, 'Who am I with these injuries?' Trying to figure out where I fit in and what my purpose would be," said Cila. "Then I learned about Canine Companions for Independence and my life took on a new meaning."
Each of these stories is touching, and each year CCI pairs more dogs with more people with disabilities.
At the gala, in support of CCI continuing to make these heartwarming stories happen, there was both a live and silent auction, where donors bid on everything from sports memorabilia to vacations, events, paintings and the chance to be the one to fund CCI training teams.
To an outsider ,the bids closing at tens of thousands of dollars may seem high, but those who are involved with the organization (or, rather, got "sucked in" from attending a graduation like Miller) are eager to give back to the cause that changes the lives of so many people.
One boy, Frankie Cavalli, attended the gala with his mom, Kelly O'Brien, so she can continue to teach him "life skills" that include giving back to CCI who gave him a service dog.
Frankie, who is on the autism spectrum, received his service dog, Victory, in 2013, which changed his life just like the others.
"It changed him socially, emotionally and academically," O'Brien said. "It's just amazing."
O'Brien, being a single mom, said she could never afford a nearly $50,000 service dog for her son on her own, so she and Frankie give back to the organization with their own fundraiser.
The duo started a business in Frankie's name called "Collars For Dollars," where Frankie sells pet merchandise on the weekends. Every month they use the proceeds to donate to CCI.
O'Brien said the company also helps teach Frankie life skills, such as balancing a checkbook and becoming more social.