What do you get when you combine the Easter Bunny, kids, dogs, and a charity whose mission is to train service dogs to assist veterans in need? The result was Operation Freedom Paws’ Annual Easter Egg Hunt, where for $5 kids and parents had good wholesome fun on a perfect Spring day, while helping to match service dogs with veterans.
Operation Freedom Paws is a 501 (3) c non-profit organization that takes dogs from shelters and rescue groups, then matches them up with veterans who train them as service dogs. When the training is complete, the dogs are matched with veterans or people with disabilities. The 48-week program comes at no cost to clients.
“We do more than just match veterans with dogs,” said Operation Freedom Paws President and Executive Director of Operations Mary Cortani. “We have therapist group meetings where veterans can get support for themselves and their sponsors. We also have outings to get them out and active in the community.”
For a dog to qualify as a service dog, it needs to be able to perform an assortment of tasks defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Duties could range from letting a veteran know when to take their medication, informing them of an oncoming seizure, or to act as a calming agent when they’re in a large crowd.
“For a veteran with PTSD, being in a crowd can trigger memories,” Cortani said. “The service dog can warn the veteran of rising levels of stress, and the dog can lead him or her out of a crowd when those stress levels are heightened. A service dog can also create a barrier between the veteran and an uncomfortable situation.”
While the Annual Easter Egg Hunt is a lot of fun—along with being an important fundraiser— organizing all the details for the day can be an arduous task that takes a lot of time. Lucky for Cortani and event organizer Megan Wenholz, they had help from over 40 volunteers.
“We start organizing the event in January, so it takes a lot of time,” Wenholz said. “It’s always better when we have a few months to prepare.”
Along with fun, another goal of the event was to educate the public about the vital work that service dogs perform.
“We also want to show the community how to interact with service dogs,” Cortani said. “You should also ask someone if you can pet a service dog. You can distract a service dog from doing its job by doing what we call a ‘drive-by pet.’”
Not every dog can become a service dog, but any dog breed— from a German Shepard to a ShiTzu—can become a service dog.
“Any dog can be a good breed; it’s based on the dog’s personality,” Cortani said. “We have a Vietnam veteran who has a tiny poodle who reminds him when to take his diabetes medicine.”