How a Service Dog for My Son With Autism Impacted My Career
Some people dream of doing great things in their life, that was never me, but I believe sometimes God has plans for our lives we never see coming. As a veteran firefighter, I thought I was doing enough to serve my community, until one day all that changed. In 2010 my wife found out that she was pregnant. While it was not planned, it was probably the single happiest moment of my life up to that point. Then I found out she was going to have a boy — wow, I was really in heaven now. I remember lying in bed thinking about all of the things we were going to do together: little league baseball, riding bicycles in the park, all of the things Dads and little boys do. Until, when my son was 3 years old, we learned about a 6 letter word that forever changed the direction of our lives: autism.
At the time I was crushed; all of those dreams and visions seemed shattered because I didn’t know anything about autism. In my mind our perfect little boy would never be, “normal.” I thought it was the end of the world, but it wasn’t. In fact, it was just the beginning of what I believe God had planned for me and my family. We didn’t sit around and feel sorry for ourselves very long. Yes, we grieved, and yes, it felt sad for a moment, but then we said, “Now what?” We started looking for ways to help our boy to the best of our ability. Then one day, while reading about different therapies, I saw an article about autism and service dogs. Who knew that article would change so much for my family and our community?
Service dogs, generally, are not cheap. In fact, the one I was looking at was about $15,000. However, we took the leap of faith and contacted the organization, they accepted us and we got started on what would be about a two and a half year journey. It was overwhelming to say the least, but we continued on. We began raising money, and it was coming in, slowly but surely. Then I contacted some people I work with at the fire department and our local IAFF union. They were excited to help, so we began to work on a fundraiser together. To make a long story short, we raised all the funds needed in just a few short months. I was flabbergasted! Why would all of these people want to help my family, my son? I had to do something to give back; I had to show my appreciation for what these people had done with more than just words, but how?
I pondered this for weeks, until one day it hit me like a ton of bricks. At this point in my life I had been a firefighter and EMT/Paramedic for 13 years and received thousands of hours of training, but I had never received any dealing with people with disabilities. That was it then — I was going to train other first responders how to interact with people with disabilities, not just autism, but developmental and intellectual disabilities as a whole. Even though I had never taught a class before, I worked for a year with many people and had lots of help developing a class and in January of 2017 we began teaching. I did not expect calls to come in from all over wanting our class, the news media showed up and pretty soon representatives from the State did, too.
I was way out of my element, but with the help and support of others, we continued on. Eventually we ended up in Gatlinburg, TN in a meeting with the State of TN commission on firefighting and the State Fire Marshal’s office. I was a nervous wreck, but that didn’t stop us. In about 10 minutes it was over, in a very uncharacteristic move for any state organization, the members of the committee made a unanimous decision on the spot. They made a motion to fund and see to it that every firefighter in the state of TN that receives state funded in-service would receive the class we had written.
There was no way to know that in a year’s time, I would go from reading an article about a service dog, to working on how to teach every firefighter in the state about disabilities, but that is exactly what happened.
My son’s service dog is a 15-month-old golden lab (golden retriever, lab mix) named Cinna, and we met him for the first time on Memorial Day, May 29th 2017. While I didn’t pick this journey, I believe God picked it for me. Because of that, he has allowed me to make the world a little bit safer for my son and people like him through a gift that I never even knew I had. While sometimes I wish life was different for my son, I can see now that it has a purpose. I believe God had different plans from little league ball or riding bikes in the park, God’s plan for us was much bigger, it just took a service dog named Cinna for us to see it.
Here is a video playlist of the class put together by the TN Dept of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
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Photo image by Brittany Mowery