The threat of a looming hurricane was no match for the 1,000 intrepid folks who braved the elements in high spirits with dogs in tow, to support a great cause—Canine Companions for Independence DogFest. For 22 years, DogFest, which originated on Long Island, has been holding this signature fundraiser and the concept has now spread to 29 cities nationwide. Yvonne Dagger of Massapequa is the chairperson of the event for the second year in a row and discussed the importance of DogFest.
“This is our largest fundraiser of the year. We have come into this event having raised $42,000 and our goal is $60,000,” she said, adding that more than $52,000 was raised that day. “Everybody worked really hard to pull this off and the volunteers this year have been exceptional.”
The morning started with the introduction of Lea Tyrrell from News 12 Long Island, who was the emcee of the event.
“This is a wonderful organization that I have supported for many years and when they ask me for help I try to be there. I love dogs, they make my life wonderful. I have two dogs that bring joy to my life and I am a fully able person,” she said. “To see people with disabilities and challenges team up with a dog that changes their life, gives them their independence and allows them to do things that they weren’t able to do before, it’s amazing to see. I love to watch that interaction and if I can help to make that happen for one person and one dog I am happy.”
The walk began when Emily Sciarretta of Levittown, who is Miss Wheelchair 2015, sang “God Bless America.” Sciarretta and her husband, Frank, both have assistance dogs and shared how important CCI is to them.
“This event is fantastic because we know how much these dogs change lives. I have had Carmel for five years and she has changed my life,” said Emily. “I had seizures and was afraid to leave the house. Now, the seizures have gone away with medication, but because of her I wasn’t afraid to leave the house. Something as simple as that, my life opened up in another way and I met Frank.”
Carmel does amazing things for Emily. Not only does she lift things up off the floor and push elevator buttons, but Carmel helps Emily emotionally.
“If I am in pain she braces my back, if I am not feeling well she senses it and comes over and kisses my nose and makes me feel better,” she said.
Frank, who concurred, was there with his new dog, Drew. His other dog passed away in May.
“Drew is doing well, is so well trained and we bonded in almost a month. These dogs have changed my life,” said Frank. “My first dog helped me meet Emily, who is now my wife. Drew is now helping me get over losing my last dog and helps me continue on in my life in so many ways.”
After singing, Sciarretta then went on to introduce Katherine McQuade, a 2015 USA pageant winner. The Massapequa High School Marching Band played songs from Mary Poppins and the crowd embarked for a walk around the park. When the walk ended, pups and their parents came back to the grounds to bid on auction items, indulge in homemade baked goods and eat some great grilled food donated by Sals Meat Market of Massapequa and Smithtown Toyota.
Debra Dougherty, executive director of the northeast region of CCI, was pleased with the high turnout despite the weather and shed light on where the money will go.
“This event is important because it enables us to place our highly trained assistance dogs free of charge,” she said, noting that it usually costs close to $50,000 to raise one assistance dog. The dogs are all raised by volunteers and those that make it through are assigned to people with disabilities including veterans, children and adults and the pairing of these dogs with their owners can change lives.
Some CCI dogs who don’t make the cut still go on to do great things. One such dog is Norm, adopted by Linda Herskowitz of Hicksville.
“Norm went through advanced training and somewhere along the way changed his mind so he was released,” she said. “My husband and I adopted him. I didn’t want him to lose his skills because he did know 30 commands. I got him certified to be a therapy dog and he was going to hospitals and nursing homes.” Linda, who is a nurse at Camp Anchor, a special needs camp in Lido Beach, brought Norm to work one day. It turns out that Norm must have been a surfer in his past life.
“Keith, the instructor who teaches disabled children how to surf, said ‘I really want to put this dog on a surf board.’ I said go ahead,” said Herskowitz. “He put him on a surf board and Norm stood right up and surfed immediately, and the rest is history. Now Norm surfs with the instructor, while the other children surf alongside.”
Keith Lucchesi of Point Lookout and the surf instructor for Camp Anchor discussed why he put Norm on the surfboard.
“One of Norm’s greatest attributes is that he makes people feel comfortable and at ease. We figured with the kids surfing, and the ocean can be an uncomfortable atmosphere, why not make them more comfortable by having Norm there,” he said. “It turned out that he really enjoyed doing it, so not only do the kids and adults enjoy the surfing but Norm gets to have fun also.”
A dog costume competition and pie eating contest rounded out the four hour event.
Canine Companions for Independence has been changing lives for 40 years. To learn more about the organization or to donate, visit www.cci.org.