Posted Monday, August 20th, 2012--10:00 p.m.
There's great joy watching your child's first steps, but for Becca Koopmans, each step her daughter Mari takes as a 7-year-old is pretty special too.
Becca says, "The progression of her disease has made her cling to me. As much as I love her, a mom wants her child to flourish and thrive on her own."
Mari has a rare genetic disorder called familial spastic paraplegia. Since the age of four, it's made it harder and harder for her to walk, and has made Mari, as she puts it, "Sad, kind of. Because when I ride on my scooter, it doesn't feel like I'm riding on my scooter." Her mother adds, "I see where she gets discouraged when her siblings are on their scooters, she has to get off hers and come in the stroller because she's tired...and she's sad and mad."
The Koopmans turned to the Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs (WAGS), hoping a service or therapy dog could help Mari.
Becca says, "A WAGS dog will give her some independence. She'll be getting a wheelchair eventually, and it will let her be on her own, which is what a child is supposed to do--grow up. Our kids are so grateful that Mari is getting a WAGS dog, because they've seen her struggles. So, they are eager to have this dog in our home.'
Later this fall, Mari will get a dog just like Journey, whom she is training with today. WAGS Program Director Kris Jensen is teaching Mari how to give a dog commands it'll obey. Like most 7-year-olds, Mari's voice is not forceful or loud, so Kris has some advice: "You're going to say her name really loud--say, 'Journey here!' and clap your hands." Mari boosts the volume of her voice, calling out, "Journey, here! Journey, here!" Journey bounds across the floor to Mari, as Kris says, "Good girl!..She did it right."
Using voice commands, and dog treats as a reward, Mari also successfully gets Journey to open a refrigerator door, using a tug rope.
Kris is also helping Mari learn how to use a special handle attached to the dog's back that will help Mari keep her balance. Mari says, "If I fall down stairs, or fall somewhere, I can lift myself up."
You can't help but notice that Mari has a beautiful smile on her face when working with the dog. Becca says, "I guess when I see her smile today I say, wow, this was really an answer to our hearts' prayers, and to some dreams, and to some hopes. To see it--live and in action, and with a smile--I mean, Mari is really good with critters and I'm really thankful for that because it will be a really good match for her heart."
Every kid needs books, and Mari's WAGS dog will have a special backpack. Mari explains it's, "to put books in, so I don't have to carry them, like bring a whole pile down. Instead, I can put it in the backpack."
Having the dog will make life easier...and more. Through a bright smile, Mari says, "They're fun to play with!" And on those tough days, everyone does better with a devoted friend....right there by your side.
Becca says, "The WAGS dog has placed a lot of hope in our home...I mean, it really has. And I know it's not going to fix everything, but it is going to be a good gift for her. I think there are a lot of people with disabilities and special needs that need hope. I think WAGS gives that in the form of a four paw gift...and we are extremely grateful to be recipients...we really really are."
WAGS is always in need of volunteers and donations. If you'd like to help, or find out more about WAGS' mission, please go to: WAGS