By Connor Quinn
About a year ago, I started working for the San Martin-based nonprofit Operation Freedom Paws. Their mission is to pair rescue dogs with veterans and individuals with disabilities and train them together to restore their freedom to live life. So far, almost 400 clients have been matched with rescue dogs, all thanks to the vision of one woman, Mary Cortani.
While I was working at Operation Freedom Paws, I wrote about the incredible things I witnessed there. Later, while I was taking care of a golden retriever puppy named Dakota, I was struck by an idea. What if I partnered with Mary to write a children’s book that could teach kids about service dogs through the perspective of the service dog’s eyes? That idea was the beginning of “Four Paws, Two Feet, One Team.”
After many drafts and some help from family and friends, Mary and I finally came up with a manuscript we felt would educate children about the different roles of service dogs, including those that serve veterans who face physical and mental challenges after their service. My goal in taking on this project and partnering with Mary to create this book was to drive awareness and generate additional revenue for Operation Freedom Paws. I wanted to help Mary continue her mission and grow her inspiring non-profit organization.
With Mary’s approval, I set out to find an illustrator who could bring the story at the heart of Operation Freedom Paws to life. I knew I wanted that collaborator to be a local Bay Area artist. After posting an ad online, I met with Susan Szecsi, an illustrator who lives in the East Bay. She was willing to come down to San Martin and experience Operation Freedom Paws first hand so she could capture the spirit of what she saw in person on the page. Not only is Susan a gifted artist, but she’s proven to be an incredible asset in navigating the world of children’s book publishing, too. It was her suggestion to create a Kickstarter campaign. The Kickstarter campaign was set up with two goals in mind—to pay Susan for her illustrations and to pay all the publishing costs. The campaign was launched in July of 2019 and we had 30 days to hit our goal of $10,000. We were thrilled that we not only met our goal, but exceeded it by $1,000. Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, that meant we were able to put some money toward our marketing efforts.
Unfortunately, our publishing timelines and personal lives were put on hold when the Covid-19 pandemic happened. However, there is a saying, “Good things take time, great things happen all at once,” and despite the surreal year 2020 has been, it has granted us some respite. In September of 2020, we felt a deep sense of pride and appreciation as 250 finished books were delivered to Operation Freedom Paws.
We now look forward to the official release date of “Four Paws, Two Feet, One Team” on Dec. 1, just in time for the holiday season! The community of Morgan Hill has been near and dear to us throughout this experience and because of their support, we would like to offer an early release to our local bookstore, BookSmart, 421 Vineyard Town Center in Morgan Hill. In honor of Veterans Day, Nov. 11, “Four Paws, Two Feet, One Team” will be available for purchase at this BookSmart location, prior to its worldwide release.
I would like to thank everyone who was involved in making “Four Paws, Two Feet, One Team” possible—particularly Mary Cortani, Susan Szecsi, Kevin Nguyen, Katie Bailey, Janice Madrid, Jillian Wilson and Emilio Gallegos (check out his original poem on page 34!) for all their help in making this book a reality. Thank you to all my fellow veterans for everything you’ve done, everything you currently do, and for everything you will continue to do in the future. Lastly, I would like to thank all the service dogs at Operation Freedom Paws for providing all the four-legged inspiration.
Connor Quinn—a Morgan Hill native and Live Oak High School alumnus—is a U.S. Army veteran who served as a medic in Afghanistan, among other locations.