Four paws, two feet, one team: Nonprofit group provides service dogs, training to veterans with disabilities

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Operation Freedom Paws

The slogan of Operation Freedom Paws—”Four paws, two feet, one team”—rings true for veteran Chris Ramirez, a local Marine Corps sergeant who  is now currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The nonprofit organization matched him with his service dog, Bobby, last June and provided training support
for his four-legged companion.
“He just gets me,” he said about Bobby.
Ramirez is just one of many people Operation Freedom Paws has helped since it was founded in 2010 by Gilroy resident Mary Cortani, who was recently presented with the 2015 KSBW Jefferson Award for the central coast. The award, presented to “unsung heroes” who go beyond their expected duties to help their local communities, was announced April 6.
Cortani’s journey with Operation Freedom Paws began more than four years ago when she received a phone call from a Marine Corps veteran. She worked as a dog trainer at the time, and the veteran told her his name had been on a waiting list for a service dog but nothing had transpired.
“I know a dog will help me; why won’t anyone help me?” he asked Cortani.
Hearing the desperation in his voice, Cortani knew she had to help.
“If you have ever spoken to someone…and you knew if somebody didn’t do something that person would not be here tomorrow…” she said, explaining her motivation.
Since Cortani founded Operation Freedom Paws in 2010, the nonprofit has provided service dogs and training support to veterans and others who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, complex PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other physical, neurological, psychological and mobility needs. Service dogs help empower people with disabilities to live quality lives, according to experts.
Operation Freedom Paws carefully matches clients with their specially chosen four-legged companions, most of which come from rescue shelters. The partners then begin a 48-week program which trains the clients to train their own dogs. At the end of the program, they’re certified together as service
dog teams.
More than 200 people have received service dogs through Operation Freedom Paws, which currently has 65 active clients.
Megan Wenholz, marketing director, said the nonprofit is impacting lives in a powerful way.
“Mary is changing lives not only of the clients but their whole families,” she said.
Jeff  Wilson, a former client who is now a mentor and trainer, is one life that was changed by Operation Freedom Paws. He recently recalled his first impression of the organization more than three years ago.
“Just watching the interaction between (the clients) and the dogs and knowing where I was and seeing where they were after doing the training for a while… ,” he said. “The benefits of the dog had kicked in; (the clients) were more social and outgoing. It was impressive.”
Cortani’s goal is to continue to grow the organization and its 42-acre training facility in San Martin so veterans and others from all over the country can benefit from its services. More than 100 potential clients are currently on Operation Freedom Paws’ waiting list. But as with many charitable organizations, funding is a challenge.
“The hurdle of dollars, I hate to say it, is what is going to slow us down and create that waiting list,” Cortani said.
Although the service dogs and training are provided free of charge to clients, the cost to the organization is $15,000 per client, Cortani said. Operation Freedom Paws offers public dog training classes to help raise funds, and it also benefits from private donations and grants provided by the Gilroy Foundation. And this year it will be a recipient of funds raised in the Silicon Valley Community Foundation Gives Day on May 6.
Cortani hopes the regional giving day will raise lots of money, but she also hopes it will help educate the public about the importance of Operation Freedom Paws and how dogs can help people like Kevin Paul Bearb.
Now a specialty mentor and trainer, Bearb described his experience with Operation Freedom Paws in just a few simple but profound words.
“The world just opened up,” he said.
For more information about Operation Freedom Paws or to make a donation go to operationfreedompaws.org.

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