Gilroy’s own Mary Cortani of the local nonprofit Operation Freedoms Paws spent Monday with a CNN photographer and a surprise celebrity OFP supporter.
Jane Lynch, who plays the conniving cheerleader coach Sue Sylvester on the popular FOX television show “Glee”, traveled from Los Angeles to Gilroy this week to get to know Cortani and to show support for OFP.
Lynch, a cultishly popular actress and long-time animal advocate, is slated to introduce Cortani on CNN’s annual tribute show that will be hosted by news anchor Anderson Cooper Dec. 2.
“Mary’s good works moved me to tears more than once in the day I spent with her,” Lynch tweeted Tuesday. “What a hero. What a woman!”
An Army veteran of 14 years and former Army Master Instructor of Canine Education, Cortani is 1 of 10 finalists in the running to become CNN’s “Hero of the Year.” If Cortani wins, the award money of $250,000 will go toward finding a permanent home for OFP. That’s on top of the $50,000 OFP received just for making the top 10.
The program currently operates out of the large warehouse at 8425 Monterey St. (also occupied by the Gilroy Compassion Center), where Cortani spearheads a 32-week training regimen for human-dog teams.
Cortani started OFP in 2010 and has since expertly hand-picked dogs from local shelters. She matches each canine to a compatible veteran; many of whom struggle with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
There are currently more than 80 OFP participants, which consists mostly of veterans as well as a few teens and individuals struggling with seizures or hearing impairments.
CNN continued their all-day filming of Cortani late into Monday evening by attending OFP’s weekly training class at the Monterey warehouse.
As many of those who have worked with her will attest, Cortani is the epitome of humility and kindness – something CNN photographer Dave Holloway pointed out after spending the entire day with her.
“Mary is not the type of person that seeks the spotlight,” he observed.
Cortani describes the surreal whirlwind of being a CNN ‘Hero’ – not to mention the awareness the national spotlight continues to garner for OFP – as “truly amazing.”
“Actually, I wish there was a better word because ‘amazing’ can’t really describe how all of this feels,” she said, smiling.
Holloway continued CNN’s coverage of Cortani during Monday night’s class by photographing the dogs and OFP participants as they learned to work together. The class was arranged with chairs placed in a large circle with the dogs at their participant’s feet. Cortani stood in the center of the circle answering questions, addressing concerns, giving encouragement and sharing the training and guidance that will become the foundation of the participant-dog relationship.
Since Cortani’s “Weekly Hero” CNN honor was revealed in June, attention on OFP has skyrocketed exponentially. Winning CNN’s “Hero of the Year” would provide even more valuable attention in the form of international exposure. This world-wide recognition could translate into consistent funding streams and donations for OFP that would allow the nonprofit to provide its valuable service dogs and training classes to countless more veterans who are hoping to become a part of the program.
“Mary is what everyone should try to be. She is the best person I know. And she has given everything she has to this program. She is a wonderful person,” said Jennifer Poeschl, a U.S. Army veteran of seven years who credits Cortani with “giving me back my life.”
Poeschl, 40, opened up to the Dispatch in September after learning Cortani had made CNN’s top 10. She struggles with depression, anxiety, panic disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War, and was referred to Cortani by her psychiatrist, who felt Poeschl would benefit from a service dog.
Before getting paired up with Shadow – a 2-year-old half Labrador, half Queensland heeler – Poeschl said she was housebound for several years.
“At any given week, I wouldn’t step out the front door, I wouldn’t answer the phone,” she recalled. “The world got to be too much for me after everything and I couldn’t face it anymore.”
Poeschl’s life turned 180 degrees since crossing paths with Cortani in February. Working alongside Shadow and having him as a constant companion “is such a wonderful gift,” said Poeschl. “He is always right there with me, he watches out for me, he’s just there, and he loves me no matter what. I can’t describe how much he has done for me.”
She now travels more than 100 miles every Saturday from her home in Ripon, located outside of Modesto, to work with Cortani. It’s well worth the trek, she says.
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.
Monday’s national media and celebrity attention doesn’t mean Cortani has won CNN’s Hero of the Year award – yet. She still needs to receive the most online votes to win. Voters can help make that happen in the small window of time that’s left before the contest closes.
Online voting for “CNN Hero of the Year” runs through midnight Nov. 28. Voters can cast ballots up to 20 times a day by voting 10 times via mobile device or by logging on to CNNHeroes.com, as well as voting another 10 times on Facebook. The Hero with the most votes will be named “CNN Hero of the Year” and receive the additional $250,000 grant. If Cortani wins, the money will go toward finding a permanent home for OFP.
Meaningful support for our veterans and a win for Cortani may be just a few mouse clicks away.