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.

Finding Happiness One Stitch at a Time

There’s been a lot of talk about happiness these days, mostly because there are a lot of unhappy people walking around. Seems everybody is complaining about something and a lot of people are downhearted. Despite having lost my job last year and spending months finding my way back into the work force, which I did the end of February, I should have been unhappy, but I wasn’t. Part of what got me through my bump in the road was keeping a positive attitude and quilting. It’s my sanity check because it makes me incredibly happy. I got to wondering, what about other quilters; do they feel the same way? Is quilting their bliss too, is it their source of happiness? So I asked several quilters and here’s what I learned, key lessons that can be applied to anyone in any situation.

Betsy M. of Ramona, California says that “Each time I look for a quilting pattern to create, the excitement starts right away.  I love looking at the quilting shapes and colors and imagining what the person I’m going to make this quilt for will feel about my choices. It continues as I create the colors I’d like to implement in my creation. I love touching the fabric and auditioning the color combinations. This is when I enter my own world where nothing else matters, I’m the creator!”

Betsy likes every aspect of it, even cutting out fabrics, because to her it gives her a sense of a job well done. Her spirit soars as she “lovingly sorts and stacks the precious pieces of different colored fabrics that are now ironed and crisp. I admire my work, it’s stimulating, like looking at a bowl of fresh fruit that has multiple colors and textures. As I stitch the pieces together, the quiet hum of the sewing machine is melodic and soothing.” As she quilts, she is at “one” with the fabric, the machine and her objective — to imbue love and security into every stitch.

“Each quilt contains a piece of myself that I joyfully pass on with the hopes that its new owner will “feel” what was made for them. I love sewing for friends and family as well as making quilts for babies in the NICU at one of the local hospitals. I see my woven intentions every time I look at one of my quilts. Others may not see those intentions but I hope they can feel them. The best part about quilting is that I complete each quilt, then step back and admire my work. I did this! I took a piece of cloth and made it into something beautiful.”

Gillian Moss of San Diego told me “Quilting, sewing, creating is a huge part of who I am, I can’t imagine a day without doing or at least thinking about it.” She’s involved in various quilting and sewing groups and guilds, plus she runs the critique group at Visions Art Museum and occasionally teaches. Gillian says that each of them, in their different ways, feeds her soul. But it wasn’t a quilt that recently made her spirits soar.

Her daughter, who she says was never much of a ‘clothes horse’ type of girl, paid her a visit and entered Gillian’s studio with a very old shirt in her hand. “It’s finally done” her daughter said. Gillian immediately recognized the beloved shirt with a seahorses pattern. Her daughter had worn it for many years and now it had two tears and was on its way to the trash.

“Memories of a rare mom and daughter shopping trip made me say ‘ let me try to mend it’,” Gillian recalls. “Is the shirt salvageable? Is it worth my time and effort?” Gillian decided that it was. “As I sit and sew the fabric back together, working out how to give this shirt with all its memories a new lease of life, I am happy. I think of my daughter, much changed since the day I bought her the shirt. The fact that I can mend this one small thing in her life — that makes me really happy.”

Lindy Chrivia, El Cajon, California got talked into taking a beginning quilt class by her sister. She remembers thinking that only old ladies quilted; at age 55 she didn’t think of herself as old yet. She was hooked from the first class. Over the years she has made traditional pieced quilts for family, graduating to hand-appliqué. In 2015 she won two impressive prizes at the San Diego County Fair, a best in show and another quilt won second prize. Lindy recalls it was “a highlight that reduced me to tears!”

At age 65 Lindy received news that no one ever wants to hear; she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. She says that years of chemotherapy have taken their toll on her.  She has very little energy, saving whatever she has for making quilts. Cancer doesn’t stand a chance with Lindy; she has better things to do.

“I happily sew for hours; the quilt making gives me peace and the pain and nausea seem to disappear.” It must be incredibly therapeutic for her. Lindy’s doctor originally gave her a prognosis of living 18 months, at most. Lindy has more than outlived that dire prediction. She says her doctor calls it a miracle, but Lindy sees it differently. “It seems part of the miracle is making quilts.”

VCB, who asked to stay anonymous, was divorced and suffering from an ailment her doctors could not diagnose. To put it mildly, she was not in good spirits. One day she walked into a quilt shop at a mall, bought a magazine on Miniature Quilts and some fabrics to give it a try. At home she cut out the tiny pieces and assembled the little quilt by hand. She was pretty pleased with herself, adding that it greatly improved her outlook. Years later, after overcoming cancer she went back to work, taking a position that proved to be one of the most atrocious jobs she’s ever had. Day after day VCB would come home and cry. She was just plain miserable and realized it was no way to live; she had to do something to counter all the negativity at work. She knew how much joy she got from making her mini quilts and decided to join a quilting guild, a wise decision that has helped maintain her sanity. Besides improving her state of mind she’s now making big quilts!

Darlene Piche of San Diego started quilting 30 years ago.  She still remembers the delight she felt putting together different prints for her very first quilt. She says, “that thrill has never left me.  Putting prints, colors, and textures together is a creative expression.  It is my go-to happy place.  When I am creating a quilt, I’m able to forget about the responsibilities of my normal life.  Yes, I’ll admit, it is an addiction. ”

Darlene adds that quilting has been the foundation of many meaningful friendships with people who share her passion.  “With my quilting friends, I am always learning new things,” she says.  “It’s a wise way to age and still stay young at heart. I cannot imagine my life without quilting. Any day I have a needle and thread in my hand is a great day!”

So my friends, what makes you happy? For me it’s getting lost in the creative endeavor of making a quilt. I love visualizing the initial style concept, choosing the colors, the patterns of the fabric, the style of quilting stitches. The whole thing—keeps me engrossed in the process and relieves my mind of the travails of everyday life.

Everyone should find at least one thing that will alleviate stress they can rely upon for solace. And as a bonus, perhaps even give additional meaning to their life.

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.

Unleashing Hidden Talent Restores Dignity

Though Alzheimer’s devastates individuals and their families, occasionally a bright light shines from its dark tunnel. Sometimes innate gifts obscured through the toils of daily life emerge. Like what happened to Lester Potts, the late father of Dr. Daniel Potts, a well-known Alabama neurologist.

UHT HummingbirdLester was a rural Alabama saw miller who became an acclaimed watercolor artist after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (AD). Prior to developing AD he had never before shown any artistic talent. Art and music therapy at Caring Days, a dementia daycare center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama fed his creative expression, improving his cognition, mood, and behavior.

Daniel and his wife Ellen witnessed a transformation in Lester quite unlike anything they had ever seen. Moreover, what impressed them was how these therapies helped to restore Lester’s dignity and improved his quality of life. It was nothing short of extraordinary. Ellen remembers the time clearly.

“The only thing Lester had drawn before was of something to build. He was practical, the most utilitarian soul ever. For him to become an artist, it was so out of character. The more his disease progressed the more he painted his memories. This part of his psyche was released as his frontal lobe deteriorated. Where (Alzheimer’s took) the sense of self went away,” she explains, “his right parietal lobe was pretty much untouched until late in the disease process. All that creativity was probably there all along.”

Ellen explains that the frontal lobe inhibits creativity that may be buried deep within. “You’re inhibited from doing things you may have the talent to do because you don’t think you have the ability or you’re too inhibited to try. All that creativity was untouched until late in the disease process. It was probably there the whole time. The fact that he of all people would become an artist was the most miraculous thing of all.”

Lester’s new abilities influenced his son. “Before we knew it the art got a hold of me and I was staying up all night writing poetry, which is something I’d never done in my entire life,” Daniel says. “I went to Ellen and said we ought to put a book together of Dad’s art and my poetry.” In 2006 they put out The Broken Jar featuring his poetry and Lester’s art.

You’d think that a story like this would be enough, right? Not this couple. They took it and ran in order to give other dementia patients the same good fortune. They developed a program in collaboration with the University of Alabama Honors College, called Bringing Art to Life.

UHT GroupEach semester the program pairs five participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s with three Honors students.  Before the start of the art therapy sessions the students receive instruction on Alzheimer’s, person-centered care techniques, art and other expressive arts therapies, and are taught the importance of honoring and preserving the life story.  For the next eight weeks the students and patients work side-by-side in group art therapy.  During the sessions, the students capture life story elements for later use in crafting a memoir.

According to Daniel and Ellen, one of the most heartwarming aspects is watching how the students develop empathy for the dementia patients and for their caregivers.  The Potts’ based the course on A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer Caregiver, a book they co-wrote in 2011. Lester was not their only family member with Alzheimer’s. Between the two of them they have lost eight family members to Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. They demonstrated every situation in the book with a family story.

Daniel explains their motivation for establishing the program. “We were trying to use our experience with Dad and others to show that the person is still in there and build on that. Our focus is honoring the human being, the dignity people still have, despite this disease. We can still have a relationship with them that can be transformative for everybody. The art and the music help you tap into that.”

Ellen says “Through the pairing of the students and participants, it’s been nearly miraculous how some of the participants were able to come out of their shell.” She describes how the students and dementia patients found a connection, adding that previously many of the patients had been withdrawn and had stopped interacting with their families. “In the art therapy and reminiscing sessions they came to life.”

They tell the story of a well-known Southern artist, Sara Turner, who lost her sight to macular degeneration and developed Alzheimer’s. She joined Art to Life in 2014. Daniel remembers the day the 95 year-old joined the program.

UHT Hands

“Sara came into the room the first time and said she used to be an artist but didn’t think she could do the art project. Her students helped her, guided her hands, talked her through it, and asked her favorite colors.” She was elated and told the students “I can feel colors again”.

“Sara was completely authentic; the Alzheimer’s couldn’t mask that. The students were completely inspired by this blind woman with Alzheimer’s,” he says. “She was so full of gratitude, just to be alive and present. It made the students have introspection and look at their own lives and their own fears and the things they’re dealing with. Interacting with Sara brought all that out. It was therapy for those kids to be in the presence of this woman.”

UHT Sara CelebrationHe remembers sitting back and watching and being in tears. “Sara named the finished piece, Celebration – it’s a new beginning. It was a celebration and a new beginning and it was one of those Art to Life moments that has changed so many lives over the course of the last five years.”

Indeed. And to think it all started with a rural saw miller who had never painted a day in his life. I imagine that Lester is still painting, and smiling down on Daniel and Ellen, proud of how they’re changing lives through art, proud of all the goodness they’ve instilled. And maybe he’s just a little bit proud to have been the inspiration. How could he not be?

To see The Broken Jar, click here.

To learn more about Bringing Art to Life please visit them here.

 

Hailey, the Extraordinary Kid Caregiver

Hailey 3

There are good people everywhere, and then there are remarkable people like Hailey, who takes care of her grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Not so unusual? Actually, it’s quite unusual because Hailey is nine years old and began caring for her beloved grandmother at the age of four. She adores her grandmother and has gone to extraordinary lengths to give her the best life possible.

What you may ask can a child do for an aging grandparent with such a challenging disease? Well, let me tell you. This child, who is as insightful as someone 50 years her senior, makes her grandmother’s world an easier place to live in, and one where she knows she is loved, deeply loved. How does Hailey get through, how does she communicate with her?

Hailey 5“I manage it by doing puzzles with my Grandma,” Hailey says. “Even if we don’t solve it exactly right it still makes Grandma happy.”

Hailey’s mom, Emma, says that her mother is still able to speak and she still recognizes them. That’s a big deal when it comes to dementia; there is nothing so heartbreaking as your loved one not knowing who you are. Emma says they are grateful, while acknowledging that there are other behaviors associated with the disease that can be difficult at times, such as frequent repeating. Anyone who has spent time around someone with Alzheimer’s knows that repeating is one of the more taxing aspects of the disease. It can be incredibly frustrating. Leave it to a nine year-old to come up with an effective tactic.

Hailey explains, “When Grandma keeps repeating herself I usually talk about a different Hailey 1subject, I say words she can’t repeat, like I say ‘I love you, Grandma’. Or I ask her a question.”

As her mother plunged into dementia Emma looked, but didn’t find any books for kids that would lend support; books that might help them cope. When it became quite apparent that Hailey had figured out a few innovative ways on her own Emma encouraged Hailey to create something that would help other kids navigate the caregiving waters.

“I started thinking that I needed a blog to help kids, so that they know they’re not alone and show them ways that they could care for their loved ones,” Hailey says. “On April 5th it was published.”

Emma set up the blog for Hailey, who took it over. She uses the hunt and peck system and for smaller entries she completely types it on her own. Emma, a teacher, proofreads and edits if necessary. Sometimes Hailey dictates entries to Emma who types it for her. Emma emphasizes that Hailey definitely does most of it on her own. Hailey comes up with posts, such as her caregiving tips and strategies. She’s even featured her friend, Katie, as a guest blogger. The blog has become a passion for Hailey and for her mother, too. The following post that Emma wrote on Hailey’s blog explains why it was so important to launch the blog and the new community it is building:

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving there are at least 1.3 million children between the ages of 8 and 18 who are caregivers. Hailey realized that children can make a big difference in the world. Unfortunately, Hailey and I had difficulty finding other kids who are going through the same thing as Hailey. There were times, when Hailey would have loved to know that there were other kids “out there”; who are also going through similar experiences. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”, so Hailey created the type of support group that she would have loved for herself. Her goal is for kids to have a platform to share ideas, offer tips, and get advice. She shares her experiences, to model for other kids.  Kid Caregivers is in its infancy, since the seed was launched in February (2016). I am excited to report that there are readers from: India, Africa, Greece, Germany, Israel, Russia, UK and the United States. Clearly caregiving is a worldwide issue and for children a very sensitive one. Her goal is to let other kids know that they are not alone. Hopefully, her dream of reaching “hundreds” of kids will become a reality.

Hailey 4Hailey’s efforts don’t stop there. She is the Assistant Director of Puzzles to Remember, an organization that provides puzzles to seniors in various types of facilities. And then there’s a prototype she’s working on called the Memory Walker Alert. Not long ago her grandmother forgot to use her walker one day, fell, suffered a subdural hematoma and broke her hip. Hailey reports that her grandmother had to have surgery and is doing much better. But the incident disturbed Hailey; she wanted to figure out a way to get people with dementia to use their walkers. Emma told Hailey about a device called a proximity sensor. Though not an engineer, Hailey is working on a dual-sensor system where one sensor would attach to the walker and the other would attach to the senior. If the senior steps too far away from the walker it would give off a voice command “Walker! Use your walker!” and a sound would beep image source. As Emma is quick to point out, Hailey does not know how to build the circuitry, but she understands the mechanics behind it. She’s already sketched out her idea.

Hailey 2“As the adults, her father and I are trying to figure out how it can be done,” Emma says. “She came up with the seed of the idea. She told me ‘we need to come up with some kind of alarm system, Mommy, so Grandma doesn’t leave the walker.’ We showed her various videos of proximity sensors and she’s been working on it” Emma says proudly.

At the center of Hailey’s mission is heart. A big heart. Most children are content to play and be a kid. Hailey is a different kind of soul. Of course she is a kid, and does all the usual kid things, but she also has a rare vision not often seen in a nine year-old. That vision means both making life better for her grandmother and helping other children, showing them that they’re not alone in caring for someone they love. If her blog accomplishes that one task, if it helps just one child, she will be elated, because all the effort will have been worth it.

For more information visit Hailey’s Kid Caregivers blog and her FaceBook page.

Be sure to watch the music video Stay for a Little While. Written by David Light and Bakhus Saba, it reflects on how children connect with dementia patients and features several photos of Hailey and her grandma.