Despite the looming threat of a sudden downpour, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) held their Dogfest Walk and Roll on the grounds of Marjorie Post Park on Sept. 24, raising more than $50,000 for a charitable cause that helps thousands of disabled people nationwide.
CCI is a national nonprofit organization that trains assistance dogs for people with physical disabilities such as spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and other disabilities; pretty much anything other than blindness is covered. The dogs are trained to understand multiple commands, and they can assist their owners with things such as turning light switches on and off, picking up objects off the floor, opening doors and more.
The Northeast regional chapter of the volunteer-driven organization, based out of Medford in Suffolk County, covers an extensive amount of area, serving from Maine to Virginia, according to executive director Debra Dougherty, who noted that CCI provide the dogs at no cost to their recipients.
“The dogs we use actually come from out in California, where the organization’s breeding program is located. Raised and trained by volunteers for approximately 18 months, the dogs are then given aptitude and physical testing, and those that pass move on to a more rigorous round of training for six months,” she said. “While the dogs are being trained, we also constantly take in applications from people. Recipients of animals are invited to come stay at our dormitory for two weeks, where they’re matched with their dog and they learn how to work with and care for them, and on the day they graduate they get to meet the volunteer who trained their dog for them.”
Dogfest Walk and Roll, one of the organization’s primary annual fundraising efforts, boasted more than 200 participants this year, Dougherty said.
“This is what we call our national signature event. It’s currently taking place in about 34 cities across the country right now and it is our largest fundraising event that we do. This particular one had a goal of $55,000 and we reached that goal prior to today and will actually exceed it,” she said. “The program starts with several speakers, including a testimonial from a recent recipient of an assistant animal. In addition, there are many festival-like attractions for both dogs and their owners, including a photo booth and obstacle course.”
But the big focus of the event is on the Walk and Roll aspect, where the participants—many of whom, wheelchair-bound and able-bodied alike, brought along their fuzzy, four-legged friends for company—engaged in an approximately one mile walk around Marjorie Post Park, which essentially consisted of two full laps on its expansive grounds.
Levittown resident Emily Sciarretta is confined to a wheelchair and has procured an assistance dog from CCI; Sciarretta, the current reigning Miss Wheelchair New York, has had her dog Carmel for almost six years, and Sciarretta said that Carmel has been invaluable when it comes to helping her get through each and every day.
“The dogs come to us with about 44 commands, and I’ve taught Emily another 12. I’ve told her how to follow a laser pointer to get something I need for me, how to press an elevator button and more,” she said. “These animals are incredible, because they don’t only help us physically, they help us emotionally as well. Plus, I actually met my husband through the organization. We’ve been married three years now and it’s been wonderful.”
Sciarretta’s husband, Frank, also uses a wheelchair and owns an assistance dog; however, it was unexpectedly meeting his future wife through Canine Companions that had the most impact upon his life of all, he said.
“We actually met through one of the puppy raisers. Emily and I were both friends with her on Facebook and she asked me one day if I wanted to meet Emily and I said absolutely. And it was fireworks right away,” he said. “I also have a service dog, named Drew… he’s there whenever I need him, picking things up off the floor for me, opening and closing doors, and he comes to work with me every day and keeps me in a good frame of mind. It’s amazing having him with me wherever I go.”
Megan Lebell of Farmingdale is a recent graduate of CCI’s training program and noted that the assistance dog she was paired with, Carla, is not only her helper, but her very best friend as well.
“Every morning she wakes me up so I can get up and get ready for school,” she said. “She puts a smile on my face, and she’s in my heart forever. I love Carla so much and I want to thank Canine Companions for putting her in my life.”