Local dog trainer named ‘CNN Hero’

Mary Cortani, founder of Operation Freedom Paws, speaks to the crowd after receiving $3,320 during the annual meeting and charitable giving presentation of the Gilroy Foundation at the Santa Barbara Bank and Trust. Also on stage is Operation Freedom Paws

Gilroy dog trainer Mary Cortani is making waves again – and this time it’s on a national news network.

The Army veteran of 14 years and former Army Master Instructor of Canine Education is currently splashed across CNN’s website as this week’s “CNN Hero,” an honor that spotlights “an everyday person changing the world.”

Since Cortani, 55, founded Operation Freedoms Paws in 2010, the 501 (c3) nonprofit that empowers wounded veterans and others with disabilities to train and live with their own service dog has grown exponentially.

Cortani says OFP is now up to 75 veteran participants, including three young men with disabilities.

Operating out of the large warehouse 8425 Monterey St. (also occupied by the Gilroy Compassion Center), the organization spearheads a 32-week training regimes for human-dog teams.

OFP begins by hand-picking dogs from local shelters, then matching each canine to a compatible veteran. Many participants who go through the program struggle with issues such as post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

Being nominated as a CNN Hero isn’t Cortani’s first time in the limelight. She’s been featured in the Dispatch, recently received a major grant from the local philanthropic Gilroy Foundation and was honored with the American Red Cross Real Heroes Award in 2011.

“I’m still in that reaction phase of, ‘wow, this is real?’ and ‘holy cow!” said Cortani, who has lived in Gilroy for 18 years. “I’m honored; I’m humbled. I don’t think of myself as a hero. It’s really about men and women who are coming home injured, and helping make their lives better.”

Cortani was nominated in April by Alice Herbert, a longtime client of Cortani’s who watched OFP evolved over the years. Herbert’s compelling letter stood out among thousands sent from around the globe to CNN’s review committee, which followed up with a background check “so thorough, I thought I was getting my security clearance for the service again,” Cortani joked.

After informing Cortani that she had been selected as a CNN hero, a reporter and videographer visited Gilroy the weekend of May 19. OFP was filmed in action at local locations including Sarah’s Vineyard on Hecker Pass Highway and Station 55 Bar and Grill downtown.

“It was an amazing experience,” Cortani recalled.

She also praised the “amazing” community of Gilroy and local business for being so accommodating of the CNN film crew, which visited the same weekend as Gilroy’s annual downtown wine stroll.

Likening her approach to a Chinese proverb (“If you give a man a fish, they’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime”), Cortani once told the Dispatch that “training the dog is the easy par. The hard part is training the person.”

OFP is currently searching for a permanent home. If you would like to contribute to this effort, or sponsor a service dog, OFP donations can be mailed to Operation Freedoms Paws,

777 First Street, PMB 515, Gilroy, CA 95020. Donations can also be mailed online by visiting www.operationfreedomspaws.org.

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