|Rhonda Clark, a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Hermitage, gives her assistance dog, Art, a hug in this photo taken in 2008. Clark received Art from the agency Canine Companions for Independence, which trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness. Clark is the chair of a local fundraiser for Canine Companions, DogFest Walk n’ Roll, scheduled for Nashville on Sept. 13 at The Fontanel Mansion. Photo by Chris Blanz|
Ten years ago, St. Stephen parishioner Rhonda Clark began the process to get an assistance dog. Born with Cerebral Palsy, Clark uses a power wheelchair to get around, and was hoping the trained dog would help her with some of her daily living tasks. “I was completely independent,” said Clark. “I work full time in the community. But I decided that I wanted to rely more on four-legged animals than two-legged.”
After researching several options, Clark chose Canine Companions for Independence, an Orlando-based agency that places highly trained assistance dogs with individuals who have disabilities other than blindness. A non-profit in existence since 1975, Canine Companions provides these dogs totally free of charge to the recipient with a disability.
Even though Clark knew exactly what she wanted, it would be four years before she arrived home with Art, a Black Lab and Golden Retriever mix.
“There’s such a high demand for these types of dogs, and currently 300 people on the waiting list,” explained Clark. “It’s a long process too, with you and your doctor filling out paperwork. They match the dog’s abilities with your abilities, and your needs with the dog’s needs. It’s a very stringent program.”
Clark received her assistance dog training in Orlando. During that intensive period she worked with four different dogs before being matched with Art. Back home in Nashville, only Clark and a few select people were permitted to interact with Art for the first 30 days, to ensure that he and Clark would bond, and that Art would recognize her as his “boss.”
“Prior to getting Art, if I dropped something on the floor I either had to use a reacher, or I had to wait until one of my neighbors came home, or ask somebody at work to help me if I was there,” Clark said. “That meant they had to stop what they were doing. Now, if I drop my pen or my checkbook I can just say, ‘Art get!’ and he’ll pick it up. He can also put my clothes in the dryer. I actually taught him how to do that.”
Although Art was free to Clark, the process involved in getting one dog ready to support a person with a disability is a $50,000 enterprise. That’s because Canine Companions breeds, raises, trains and places all of their dogs – Golden Retrievers, Black Labs or a cross between the two – and then follows the trained human and dog “team” through the working life of the dog. The agency receives no government funding for its services; instead, it relies on corporate and individual donors, and fundraisers, like an upcoming DogFest Walk n’ Roll scheduled for Nashville on Sept. 13.
Clark felt the addition of Art was a life-changing event for her, and so she decided to do her part to ensure that other individuals with disabilities could have the same opportunity. Last year, as a way to “give back”, Clark agreed to chair the local Dogfest, which will take place at The Fontanel Mansion, country music star Barbara Mandrell’s former home. Like other DogFests across the country, this one will feature vendor booths, silent and live auctions, a one-mile walk with several dog and human “teams” participating, and dinner. To cap off the event, an evening concert will showcase the music of Greg McDougal and the McDougal Kids, David Seering and headliner, Linda Davis. Tickets for the dinner and entertainment are $150 per person, or $1,200 per table.
“The goal that they’re asking us to reach is $60,000,” said Clark. “That would place one dog, plus pay for the expenses of having the event. Well, I’m always one to set really high goals, so my goal is to place two dogs with individuals with disabilities and pay for the expenses. That means I’d like to see Nashville raise $115,000.”
While working hard to promote the September DogFest, Clark is also planning a Canine Companion fundraiser of her own at the Chick-fil-A on Franklin Road in Brentwood on June 19. Last year, Clark and the community raised $1,900 for the non-profit at this location in just three hours. For customers who present a special donation card – available through Clark – from 5-8 p.m. that evening, Chick-fil-A will donate 15 percent of that person’s purchase to Canine Companions. Theses proceeds will also go toward the DogFest total.
To register for the DogFest, visit www.cci.org/dogfestnashville. For more information, or to receive a donation card for the June Chick-fil-A fundraiser, contact Clark at email@example.com or (615) 944-8509.