Local dog trainer should be ‘CNN Hero of the Year,’ supporters say

Cindy Laptalo leads the pack with Abby a Greyhound while out exposing the dogs to natural sounds and distractions during a saturday training with Operation Freedoms Paws in Gilroy. 10.29.11 Photo by Aimee Santos

The people whose lives have been transformed by Gilroy dog trainer Mary Cortani think she’s pretty awesome – and they want the world to know about it.

After being featured in June as a weekly “CNN Hero” – an honor that spotlights “an everyday person changing the world” – Cortani’s fans are advocating and “pushing as hard as we can” to make her a “CNN Hero of the Year.”

In 2010, the 55-year-old Army veteran of 14 years and former Army Master Instructor of Canine Education founded Operation Freedoms Paws, a 501 (c3) nonprofit that empowers wounded veterans and others with disabilities to train and live with their own service dog has grown exponentially.

The organization has served more than 80 veteran participants (a number that continues to grow by the month), and recently expanded to cater to youth and additional civilians struggling with seizures or hearing impairments.

“She basically turned her whole life over to the veterans and to this program,” said Janet Wenholz, a participant-turned-volunteer.

Wenholz refers to Cortani as “an alchemist.”

“I don’t ‘know how she finds the perfect dog for these people, but it’s amazing to watch them bond within an hour,” she said.

Individuals can nominate their heroes online now through Aug. 31. The top 10 CNN Heroes will be selected by a group of CNN officials and announced Sept. 20, at which time online voting will open up for “Hero of the Year.” The top 10 CNN Heroes will receive $50,000 and the CNN Hero of the Year will receive $250,000.

The annual tribute show will hosted by news anchor Anderson Cooper Dec. 2 on CNN. Since its inception in 2007, “CNN Heroes” has received over 45,000 submissions from more than 100 countries and profiled over 180 heroes.

If Cortani made it to the top 10 – or better yet, was selected as “Hero of the Year” – she says the award money would go toward continuing to provide service dogs to veterans and others with disabilities.

“That’s what it’s all about,” she said.

Operation Freedoms Paws works out of the large warehouse 8425 Monterey St. (also occupied by the Gilroy Compassion Center) and spearheads a 32-week training regime 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.

The fact canines and their handlers complete the program together is what makes Operation Freedoms Paws so unique and dynamic, says Wenholz.

“They go through everything at the same time,” she said. “When Cortani uses shelter and rescue dogs, they heal each other.”

Being nominated as a CNN Hero wasn’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.

Cortani was originally nominated as a CNN Hero 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’s the most amazing thing,” said Cortani, of her purposeful calling. “To try and to put it into words is not easy, because you see the person and the animal transform into this amazing working team where they just help each other navigate life and they create a new normal. My life is blessed. I may not be worth a lot of money, but I am very rich every day.”

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.

Click here to read a past Dispatch feature on Operation Freedoms Paws. 

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