Tiny Homes Fulfill Big Dreams

   

Owning your own home, it’s part of the American dream, right? Not if you’re homeless. But in Detroit, one fearless woman, Rev. Faith Fowler is making that dream come true.

The nonprofit, Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), run by Rev. Fowler, initiated the Cass Community Tiny Homes as the first project of its kind to offer rent-to-own properties to those on the lowest rung of the economic spectrum. Fowler started the project to give people who would otherwise never have an opportunity to own a home, just that, a home of their own.

“We were looking for a way to help homeless and other low-income people gain an asset,” Fowler explained over email.

 

You’ve probably seen the tiny homes, perhaps on a trailer behind a pickup truck or maybe on TV. They’re cute, they’re cool and they serve a purpose. And while the Detroit Tiny Homes are like what you may have seen, they are also atypical. The Cass Community Tiny Homes (CCTH) is the first to offer rent-to-own properties.

Here’s how it works: CCTH finds people in shelters and through neighborhood canvassing who would like to move into a home, but don’t have the financial wherewithal to do so. I mean, these folks are homeless. Who thinks about owning a home when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight? For people who can’t qualify for a regular mortgage, much less have a down payment, but have a steady source of income, the tiny house project offers a solution to both homelessness and rebuilding a life. Prospective residents must apply. Then the organization begins a review process, culminating in an interview. Once accepted, the tenants start a yearly lease, paying rent no more than a third of their monthly salary.

Each unit rents for $1 per square foot, which comes to $250 – $400 a month for a 250-400 square-foot house. Because the tiny homes are built for energy efficiency, utilities aren’t all that expensive; they usually run about $35 a month. After renting for three years, tenants will be offered a land contract to “rent to own” their homes within four years.  Could CCTH shorten the process? Sure they could. The lengthy process is intentional and meant to help residents develop financial discipline about paying their bills on time. No one wants to see them lose their houses to unpaid water bills or taxes.

After seven years of paying rent, the lease converts to ownership. Sounds easy, but there are requirements. The renters must attend monthly financial coaching and home-ownership classes.

At this writing, the Detroit Tiny Homes community has enough property to build 25 single-family homes ranging from 250 – 400 square feet. Seven tiny homes are currently occupied and six more are in the process of being built.

One of the most heartwarming aspects of the project is that the tiny homes border the CCSS campus. This is significant because unlike many low-income housing projects, residents live side-by-side, mixed in with the local community rather than apart from it. It’s not just houses, albeit tiny ones, it’s a community.

Ultimately there will be 25 different house styles in Phase One for singles and couples, a different design on each lot. Phase Two will be for families and a commercial strip. And as the photos illustrate, unlike most shelters, these residences aren’t bleak or cheerless. Each one sports a beautiful façade, chock full lots of details and a unique architectural style.

While you might assume that the project is government-funded, it’s not. The development is funded entirely by private donations and foundations, including the Ford Motor Fund, the RNR Foundation, and the McGregor Fund.

If successful, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be, these tiny housing developments could change everything for Detroit’s low-income families. Where once there was despair, these families can settle into a life they only dreamed about – the American Dream of owning property that they can pass down to their children and future generations. It doesn’t get any better than that.

For more information please click here.

 

 

Chopper the Biker Dog, San Diego’s Beloved Celebrity

If you live in the San Diego vicinity, no doubt at some point you’ve seen a little Boston Terrier dressed up as a biker in a black leather vest, biker goggles, sporting a “doo rag”, bandana around his neck, and riding a miniature motorcycle that looks like a pint-sized Harley Davidson. He’s always with his “dad”, Mark Shaffer, a man with a heart so big, and so kind, one wonders if he wasn’t born with two. Mark and his dog, Chopper, define the term “earth angel.” They do more good for people in one year than most people do in a lifetime.

Mark and Chopper’s story began eight years ago, when Mark acquired him as a three-month-old puppy. A year before, Mark had lost his first Boston Terrier, Bandit, to cancer. Losing Bandit, who had been his biker buddy, hit him hard. Once he healed, Chopper came into his life. Though Chopper was a cute little tike, Mark wasn’t sure if he would take to the miniature motorcycle that Bandit used to ride. A month later, a local organization called The Nice Guys, invited Mark and Chopper to their annual Christmas party where they give out gifts and food to people in need. Mark used to attend every year with Bandit. He had no idea how Chopper would react to the bike, if he would even get on it.

“I took Chopper and the little motorcycle, the goggles and his little Harley T-shirt, put him on the motorcycle and he rode that little motorcycle just like he knew what to do,” Mark remembers. “It was his first time and he never tried to hop off. Who knows, maybe Bandit’s spirit was riding with him.”

Mark knew then and there that he and Chopper could continue what he started with Bandit.

Initially, Chopper rode Bandit’s bike, then some fans from Florida came to town and asked to meet Chopper. The husband was an engineer and wanted to create a new bike, just for Chopper. The man returned home, bought a little bike, took it apart and rebuilt it to look like Mark’s Harley, all at his own expense. He customized the paint, added LED lights, a sophisticated remote-control system, and better steering control. It was going to cost $800 to ship the bike to San Diego. Not to be deterred, Mark and the engineer raised the funds online to pay the cost.

The two pals attend about a dozen fundraising events a year to support their favorite charities. Events like the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, the Breast Cancer Walk, Tip a Cop, the Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Run, where cops carry a torch from Chula Vista to Los Angeles, the Law Enforcement Teddy Bear Drive for Rady Children’s Hospital, and the Hornblower Cruise to help raise money and blankets for the Helen Woodward Animal Shelter.  That sounds like a lot, but that’s just a part of what they do. When they’re not attending events, they make about 30 visits annually to patients in local hospitals, nursing homes, memory care centers and hospice, including visits to our local veterans. As a certified therapy dog, Chopper brings smiles to patients’ faces when he rides his mini motorcycle into their rooms, dressed in his leather duds. Once the chuckles die down, he gets onto the patients’ beds, curls up and snuggles with them, imbuing them with therapeutic doggie love.

Chopper has fans everywhere, especially in the law enforcement community. Check out the video of the day Chopper got stopped by a San Diego policeman here. The two buddies have an affinity for law enforcement and the military; if Mark hears about a need, he and Chopper make it a point to visit before anyone asks. One particular law enforcement officer story stands out in Mark’s memory.

“A deputy sheriff and his wife from Oregon were vacationing in Mexico when they stepped out of their hotel and were run over by a car,” Mark says. “When the police arrived, the wife was in such bad shape they covered her with a sheet, signifying she was dead. They soon discovered she was alive, barely. The couple was transported to a trauma unit in San Diego.”

As soon as Mark learned of the tragedy by the Eugene Sheriff’s Department, Mark scheduled his first visit. The husband had already been air-lifted back to Eugene, while the wife stayed hospitalized in San Diego. Chopper and Mark began visiting her as often as possible, Chopper curling up next to her on the bed. When they arrived for their second visit, the woman’s brother met them in the hospital lobby and told Mark that she suffered so much brain damage that she wouldn’t remember them when they entered the room. However, when Chopper rolled in on his motorcycle, the woman pulled herself up off her pillow and said, “Chopper, buddy!”

“All her relatives in the room broke out in tears, because it proved that her brain was healing and her cognition was coming back. Chopper gave them hope that she would recover,” he says.

The day Mark learned that the wife was going home, he called San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who gave her blessing to do whatever Mark planned to help support the Deputy’s wife. Mark arranged to have six San Diego police officers and two California Highway Patrol officers, escort her from her hospital room to the waiting ambulance. Once secured inside, the Highway Patrol escorted the ambulance to the airport with their lights going all the way.

“We wanted her and her family to leave San Diego with ‘respect’ and something positive,” Mark says. “She was life flighted home with doctors on board.”

Two years later Mark and Chopper took a trip up the coastline, stopping to visit patients in memory care centers, hospitals, veterans, police officers and nursing homes along the way. The trip ended in Eugene, Oregon where after two years, he and Chopper were reunited over dinner with the now retired deputy sheriff, his wife and their family.

“It was a very emotional reunion,” Mark recalls.

Then he received a call from a local television station telling him that a man phoned the station because he heard that Chopper was in town and the man’s daughter wanted to meet the canine celebrity. The station directed Mark to the school where they found the entire student body waiting for them in front. He learned that about the time the deputy sheriff and his wife were injured, the girl had been given a class assignment to write about a hero, but it couldn’t be an entertainment celebrity. The girl had heard about what Chopper had been doing for the wife of their local Deputy and wrote her school paper about Chopper.

While that was one of the big ones, Mark could fill an encyclopedia with stories about what Chopper’s presence has meant to people, how his very being comforts and soothes like a balm. From hospitalized law enforcement officers injured in the line of duty, to family members in nursing homes grieving the loss of a loved one, to patients in memory care centers whose faces light up when they see the quirky little dog in biker leathers ride in on his customized motorcycle, Chopper makes an impact wherever he goes.

In San Diego, Chopper is more than a local celebrity, he has built a world-wide fandom through social media, (over 117,000 followers on Facebook and growing) and not just because he’s adorable in his biker outfit and sports a biker-dude persona. More importantly, he is known for his unflagging work ethic and the immeasurable hours of volunteering in the community, never asking for anything in return. It’s easy to get caught up in Chopper the legend. After all, he is really, really, cute and as sweet as a dog can be. Sometimes people don’t realize, or they forget that the extraordinary little dog in leather biker duds is one half of a duo. A selfless man and his selfless dog who spend their free time doing good. And if that isn’t the best example of The Goodness Principle, I don’t know what is. I’ll tell you this much, San Diego is proud to call them our own.

Want to learn more about Chopper? Be sure to visit his Facebook page here,  and his website here.

Making a Difference on Make a Difference Day

Those who regularly read this blog know that when I find a person or an organization “doing good” I write about it. I stumbled across Make a Difference Day. Sounds nice, but what is it, you may wonder? Well, it’s a movement, it’s an opportunity to do-something-good to make our world a better place, and who doesn’t want that? It’s also one of the biggest annual single service days nationwide. It started in February of 1992 and has evolved into a national event held the fourth Saturday every October. In this, its 26th year, MDD will take place on October 28th, just a couple of months away. People come together from around the country with one common goal – to better the lives of others.

The point of Make a Difference Day demonstrates that everyone and anyone, regardless of age or circumstance or background, can make an impact on their community. Each October, individuals and groups get involved and they indeed make a big difference in their communities. Some are big, some are small, but they all matter. So what kind of things do people do to make a difference? It’s simple, but really, really important stuff. Acts that truly improve the lives of those around us. Here are a few stories from the Make a Difference Day website that made my heart sing:

Have you heard of the kids’ book, Loukoumi’s Good Deeds? In 2009 the book inspired children to do good, just like one of the characters, a cuddly lamb. That same year, the book’s author, New York lawyer, Nick Katsoris, used the book to launch a Make a Difference Day Project. Ultimately 1,000 children joined in and raised $10,000 that went to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. That inspired Mr. Katsoris to write more Loukoumi books. By Make a Difference Day 2013, the volunteers grew to 40,000, and the year after that – 50,000 kids helped 100,000 people. I particularly love what Mr. Katsoris said about his books inspiring kids to do good:

“The long-term impact of Make a Difference Day is that teaching children at a young age that doing good deeds can be fun is something that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

In New Albany, Indiana, Belinda Jacobi, a member of the Moving Forward limb loss support group at the Southern Indiana Rehabilitation Hospital saw an opportunity to help a larger population – their local homeless. They knew that frostbite is a leading cause of amputation among the homeless. With more than 6,000 homeless in their community, including 1,200 children, they decided to collect socks to help keep their feet warm and hopefully prevent amputation. Members of the group placed collection boxes at doctors’ offices, the hospital and a fire station. By Make a Difference Day 2016 they collected 864 pairs of socks that they donated to the Salvation Army to distribute.

Daniel Soupiset of San Angelo, Texas was responsible for helping to save dozens of animals from being euthanized. He organized a project to increase pet adoptions from San Angelo’s animal shelter, where sadly, about 75% of its animals end up being put down. In 2014 during the month leading up to MDD Daniel and 25 volunteers raised funds for his “Canine and Kitty Coupons” project. On Oct. 25, Daniel and many volunteers set up in front of the shelter and handed out coupons to cover the adoption cost. They didn’t just raise over $4,500, they saved the lives of 57 animals who went onto their Forever Homes.

Maggie Leach, a Minnesota 12-year-old learned a big lesson when her family lived in a hotel for six months while their home was under construction. She discovered that many homeless families could not afford to do their laundry more than once a month. Laundry seems like something minimal, but to someone who must choose between food and doing laundry, it’s a no-brainer, food will always win that contest. But it has its consequences. Not being able to do laundry, and having to wear odiferous clothes over and over, can greatly affect self-esteem and one’s dignity. Maggie figured that out and decided to help by collecting laundry soap and quarters for families living in shelters. On last year’s Made a Difference Day Maggie collected $810 in quarters (81 rolls), 21 baskets of laundry supplies and a pack of diapers. Her effort assisted numerous families living at Lewis House, a shelter for families fleeing domestic violence.

How Make a Difference Day started is really cool and all because of our crazy calendar. When Leap Day fell on a Saturday in 1992, Gannett’s USA WEEKEND magazine suggested to their readers to spend their extra 24 hours doing something good for others. Pretty simple, right? Absolutely and the response was stupendous; it’s been going on ever since. Then in late 2014 sponsorship of Make a Difference Day shifted to USA TODAY and Gannett’s portfolio of newspapers, TV stations and digital properties. The following year, Gannett’s broadcasting and digital businesses spun off to form TEGNA Inc. Lest you think this is just one more corporate spinoff, it’s not. Tegna awards $140,000 annually to 14 honorees who are chosen by a panel of judges. Award winners designate their charity of choice to receive the grant money. Kinda a double-good, don’t you think?

Starting a service project on your own is easy. Projects can be as simple as cleaning up your local park with your family and friends or hosting a lemonade stand and donating the proceeds to charity. The ask is simple – just do something good for somebody else. Submit your project in advance at the MDD website and you could win a $10,000 grant for your project’s charity. If Make a Difference Day sounds like something you’d like to do, click here to find out more on  their website. Together we can all make a difference.

 

 

 

Texas Shows Harvey a Thing or Two

It’s been said that the worst brings out the best in people. The past few days has shown this to be true in the Lonestar state of Texas. When Hurricane Harvey hit, no one could foresee the devastation that would hit the coastal areas. No one could fathom the massive flooding that would turn the region into one big bayou. In other low-lying states where similar devastation has hit, the residential response has been, how should I say it, less than eloquent. But Texas is not like other places. Texas takes care of its own. Texas did what Texas does, the state and its residents ran to the aid of their friends, neighbors, and people they didn’t know, regardless of their own safety. In countless cases people didn’t wait for the authorities to rescue them or rescue their neighbors. They took matters into their own hands. They pulled out their canoes and boats and dinghies and anything that would float and paddled to the aid of anyone who needed help. They became emergency workers and rescuers. Never mind that no one asked them to do what they’ve done. They stepped up even though no one asked them to.

I have family in Texas whose roots go back to the 19th century. However, it is not just my family connection that makes me proud to be “part” Texan. With all the political and societal divisiveness of late that seems to be splitting our country apart, I have taken great pride in witnessing how when the going gets tough, as it has in Texas, all those things that have pitted people against one another has dissolved. All that mattered was that people came together to help each other out, just as they should.  As a friend said to me, “it was not about politics or color, it was about humanity and compassion, people helping one another.”

God bless all the police, fire, coast guard, sheriff, swat teams and other first responders who have worked tirelessly to save thousands of lives. And not just those in Texas, but also first responders who came from all over the country. And then there are companies, like Anheuser-Busch that shut down beer production at their Georgia plant and switched to filling cans with water to ship to Texas.

However, it’s been the unsung heroes who stepped up and did the right thing that formed lump after lump in my throat. People like the Houston pastor who waded through chest deep water checking submerged vehicles looking for people who needed rescuing. A man named Aaron Jack who stopped for gas and when a lost, wet dog jumped into his vehicle, he set out to find the dog’s owner, and did. John Griggs, who used his kayak to ferry 22 people to higher ground out of harm’s way. One of the most dramatic rescues I saw on Facebook was of two men riding horseback through the flood waters to save livestock left behind to fend for themselves. The clip showed the men freeing a penned-in horse standing in water up to its neck. Then there are the stories of the news media, who had to step away from reporting the news and become a part of it like KHOU reporter Brandi Smith who flagged down a sheriff’s boat to rescue a man stuck in the cab of his truck that was rapidly filling with water. And a news photographer who freed a dog tied to a pole who was going to drown in the rising water and took him to shelter. How about the group of teens in Meyerland that weren’t old enough to drive but they used a boat to help people in their neighborhood? And the boat owner who was asked by a reporter what he was going to do and answered, “try to save some lives.” The stories of heroism are endless, and beyond heartwarming. They renew one’s faith in humankind.

And then there are the celebrities who can always be counted on to chip in, especially when the disaster hits home. You don’t realize how many of them are Texas natives until disaster strikes. They didn’t disappoint. I can’t possibly keep up with all the donations; here’s a small sampling of what I found as of this writing:

JJ Watt – set up the Houston Flood Relief Fund to raise $1,000,000. It quickly reached the goal and kept going. As of this writing it’s at $4,796,074, with a goal of $5 million. I suspect it will top that too.

Sandra Bullock donated $1,000,000 to Harvey Red Cross relief

Country music star, Chris Young: $100,000

Jim Crane and the ownership group of the Houston Astros: $4,000,000

The Kardashians: $500,000 to the Salvation Army and the Red Cross

Kevin Hart: $50,000 and then challenged fellow celebrities to follow suit

The Rock, Dwayne Johnson:  $25,000

The Houston Texans pledged $1,000,000 to the United Way of Greater Houston Flood Relief Fund.

Until the end of September, Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper fame are donating 100% of the proceeds of their “Texas Forever” shirts toward restoring homes and lives in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Just after that announcement posted I went on to order a shirt and they were already sold out. The website said they would be restocking soon.

This list would be the length of an encyclopedia if I tried to include all the many donations celebrities are making to the relief effort. God bless them too. I just hope that when the waters recede and the cleanup begins that they come to Texas and pitch in however they can. Texas is going to need a whole lot more than money. I know in every part of my being that the Lonestar state will come out stronger than ever. Why? Because that’s what Texans do. Texas Strong!

Saving Pets One Life at a Time

saving-tansy-1It’s a tragedy experienced all too often by pet owners whose fur kids suffer a devastating illness or injury that’s treatable, yet must opt for euthanasia because they don’t have the funds to pay for treatment or surgery. The veterinary community even has a name for it – “economic euthanasia.” It means that it’s less expensive to put down a pet, even though the animal’s illness or injury is treatable with a high likelihood of recovery.

According to the San Diego Animal Welfare Coalition’s most recent statistics (7/2014 – 6/2015), 1,134 animals specifically categorized as “treatable” were euthanized. This heartrending number does not include private veterinary clinics, which if reported would significantly increase the number of economic euthanasia cases. Can you imagine? You don’t have the funds to pay for your sweet pet’s health crisis and you have to opt for euthanasia instead because it’s more affordable? If you think there’s something terribly wrong about this, you’re right. There is a silver lining to the story (after all this is The Goodness Principle), so stay with me.

saving-oreo

Veterinarians don’t like this situation any more than the pet owners who face this no-win scenario. That’s why a group of San Diego County veterinarians and concerned citizens formed a foundation 10 years ago to help out pet owners facing economic euthanasia. The Foundation for Animal Care and Education (FACE) was formed as a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) public charity to provide financial grants for animal owners not able to afford the cost of their pet’s emergency or critical care. It’s called the Save a Life program. And saving pets they have. As of July 2016, almost to the 10 year anniversary day of their founding, they saved their 1,500th pet. Mostly they save dogs and cats, but there have been a few bunnies and an iguana too.

How does it work? According to Brooke Haggerty, Executive Director of the FACE Foundation™, they currently have over 100 hospital partners.

“We work with anyone (veterinary clinic) willing to work with us,” Brooke says. “All of our partners give us at least a 20% discount. If it’s a new clinic we haven’t worked with before we talk to the clinic and set it up. Our funds go directly to the clinics, not to the pet owner.”

saving-tansy-2FACE makes a compelling argument for new clinics to get involved: they help veterinarians save their patients’ lives and ensure they will never have to euthanize a healthy patient again. Patients like Tansy Star, a young kitten who was born with a congenital birth defect, a diaphragmatic hernia. Her major organs enveloped her heart sac, pressing on her lungs, a condition that makes it hard for her to breathe; it only gets worse as a cat ages. Her owner, a retired police officer, lives on disability which made it difficult to pay for the surgery Tansy needed.

Her owner says,I found Tansy’s pregnant mother living under a church building. I named her mother Luna and she gave birth to five kittens the day after I brought her home. Luna is an amazing mother, starving and weak, she gave everything she had to give birth to her kittens and cared for them until I found them all good homes. Turns out, Luna is also very young, we estimate around 12 to 14 months. Luna is healthy and has gained weight and is a permanent member of our family. I decided to also keep her beautiful and spunky daughter, Tansy Star.”

Sounds nice, right? Tansy’s idyllic world came to a raging halt.

saving-tansy-and-mom“I noticed Tansy had rapid breathing which seemed unusual,” her owner says. “I took her to the urgent care and she was evaluated with a congenital hernia. She has seen two surgeons, both say she is an excellent candidate for a corrective surgery and has a very good chance of survival and living a normal life.” As of this writing, Tansy is undergoing her surgery and is expected to have a full recovery.

And then there’s the story of a gorgeous, white German Shepard named Hero. He was a saving-heroyear and a half old when he got out of his yard and was hit by a car. He suffered a painful laceration that needed immediate care. His family had just welcomed a newborn baby into their home and was grappling with making ends meet on one income while his mom was out on maternity leave. A family member let them rent out a room at her house, which helped, but they were still having trouble making ends meet. They couldn’t pay the cost to treat Hero’s unexpected injury. Fortunately, Save-A-Life partner VCA Animal Medical Center of El Cajon told them to apply for FACE funding and they were approved for a grant which gave Hero the care he needed.

In a time when it’s easy to become cynical, and it seems that there are more and more disheartening stories around us, it’s inspiring to hear about good people doing the right thing for pets and people in need. Restores your faith in the human race, doesn’t it? For more info on FACE visit their website here.

Making It Through The Night

Chris Meyer is not having a good night. Tossing and turning, reliving nightmarish flashes, sometimes even uncomfortable night sweats—all a part of the PTSD which accompanies so many returning service men and women. If left unchecked, an alarming number fall into a depression which, tragically, ends for far too many in suicide.

But Chris is fortunate. Not only is he receiving good medical attention, but he has the constant attention of Jade, his partner, confidant, and safe to say, his love. When Chris is having another debilitating nightmare, Jade is right there to wake him from his torture, to assure him everything is all right and he is safe.

MITTN ChrisYou may be wondering what would be the best way to wake a PTSD suffering person without compounding their fright. Jade has perfected the process—first she nudges Chris a few times with her nose, then her long tongue starts bathing his face. Chris wakes up quickly; the terror abated.

You see, Jade is a service dog—a loving Golden Retriever/Shepherd mix, who was painstakingly trained by Graham Bloem, founder of Shelter to Soldier. But providing care-giving dogs to veterans is only part of the Shelter to Soldier story.

MITTN Jade at the park

Graham scours the many local shelters looking for 40 – 50 pound dogs who he can determine have the temperament and intelligence to respond to training as a service dog. MITTN GrahamAfter checking them for optimal health and getting a head x-ray, many of the dogs he tests don’t make the cut. Many of those who do test well were precariously existing on the euthanasia list because no one wanted to adopt them. Graham then saves them and begins their training.

You may rightly say that this process saves two lives at once: the dog’s and the veteran’s. Win-win! But there’s more to the story.

This isn’t one of those places that just finds a dog, then a veteran, and says “Here you go!” No, Shelter to Soldier spends several thousand dollars per dog for medical care and housing during the 12 to 18 months it takes to thoroughly train them as service dogs.

The veterans go through a careful screening process as well, starting with a doctor’s recommendation to the initial telephone interviews. Then the veteran visits the training facility to see how they interact with dogs—and vice versa. When Graham makes a suitable match, he trains the dog to be sensitive to those issues which plague the veteran.

According to 1st Sgt. Tomas Mondares, his dog Sandy (a female Shepherd/Labrador mix), senses when he gets anxious from seeing shadows after dark. Sometimes he gets easily irritated. That’s when she will side up next to him, ‘herding’ him away from the stimulus and de-escalating the situation. It’s like a friend reminding him that “it’s OK Tomas —just chill”.

MITTN Tomas & Sandy gradBut the training isn’t just for the dogs. No, Graham requires that the veteran actively participate in the training a couple of times a week over a period of months. That way the veteran becomes certified as a dog handler, and the dog intuitively learns about the needs of the veteran. At the end of training there is a graduation ceremony for each veteran and dog, concluding with certificates of completion and competency.

For Chris Meyer, knowing that Jade senses when he is in dire need, and has been taught to push a button to administer medication provides great peace of mind. For Tomas Mondares, who received severe injuries to his back and hip during a deployment, having Sandy help him get up when he can’t on his own is crucial.

Graham served a stint in a pet nutrition store, and then as a dog trainer at a large animal shelter. That’s when he discovered his innate talent for connecting with dogs and training them to be caregivers, and Shelter to Soldier began as a non-profit 2012. To date they have placed nine dogs with veterans, with eight more dogs now in training.

According to Graham’s wife, Kyrie, who takes care of the operating details of the organization, their objective is to train 20 dogs at a time. Clearly there’s a huge need; in fact there’s so many veterans in need of service dogs that they can’t keep up. Until they can get into a larger facility they can’t reach that twenty-in-training goal.

MITTN Jade Chris GradShelter to Soldier calls San Diego County home, where 1.2 million active duty, veterans and families of veterans live. Of the active and veteran ranks, a vast number suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) due to their time in combat zones. Shelter to Soldier does not to treat the veterans—that’s left to the medical institutions. Graham’s approach focuses on preparing the dogs to perform care-giving functions that aid each veteran. He understands that dogs are non-judgmental and give unconditional love; the perfect candidates for the job.

After each dog has been trained and goes home with the veteran, the veteran can call Graham anytime with questions and give him an update on how they’re doing. Shelter to Soldier holds events and get-togethers for the veterans and dogs, as well as refresher courses and further training anytime a need arises.

MITTN Sandy & Tomas 2Does it work? Before he entered the program Tomas Mondares felt he was in a dark place, and just wanted to stay shut in by himself. Now with Sandy he feels so much better that they go out more often, enjoying life together. In fact, he claims that without Graham and Sandy, he would be in a much darker place—or maybe not here at all.

Chris Meyer looked into getting  a service dog from five other programs before settling on Shelter to Soldier. He found StS to be the only one that completely vetted each veteran and each dog’s capabilities to provide the best possible fit. As Chris continues in his rehabilitation, he says he wants to give back to Graham and do some volunteer work with the organization.

How did Graham Bloem decide on this path? Is he a veteran? Is he from a military family? Neither. He was born in South Africa, and immigrated to the US through Canada, later becoming a US citizen. He has never been in the military. He did, however, come to realize that he was really good at training dogs. With all the current and former military in the county having needs, his destiny was obvious.

Graham also runs West Coast K9, a professional dog training business to pay some bills, but the non-profit Shelter to Soldier operation is a labor of love and charity. The challenge to the Board of Directors is how to expand the operation to train more dogs, necessitating a larger facility.

Saving dogs, helping veterans, by someone who immigrated here—how’s that for goodness personified?

MITTN Jade

Tomas says that “family” is defined by love, not necessarily by blood. Using that criteria, then it is safe to say that Sandy is definitely family to Tomas, as Jade is to Chris. The unconditional love these family members give to their human counterparts is their own Goodness Principle.

You can learn more about Shelter to Soldier here.