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.

A Simple Act Makes a Difference

Sometimes it’s easy to become complacent whether it be in your own community or beyond. Many people question if anything they do can truly make a difference and often, assuming that they can’t, don’t even try. If you find yourself falling into this rut, take a look at what two women are doing to bring joy to veterans and active service members.

Bonnie Aker and Kathi Henderson of Albuquerque, New Mexico are quilters with big hearts, huge hearts actually. They don’t just make quilts; they make quilts with a purpose. Since 2011 they have made 45 Quilts of Valor, 25 of which have been donated to veterans on dialysis at the VA Hospital in Albuquerque.

What is a Quilt of Valor? It’s an organization full of volunteers who make quilts for veterans and service members touched by war. As of this writing QOV volunteers have made and donated 151,768 quilts. Just to give you an idea of what this entails, most quilts without a lot of complicated design take 25-45 hours to complete (some longer, some shorter). Averaging 35 hours per quilt that comes out to over 5.3 million hours! Now that’s a lot of heart. You must be wondering how all these people came together to make these quilts for our deserving military.

To give you a little background, the Quilts of Valor Foundation began in 2003 while founder Catherine Roberts’ son Nat was deployed in Iraq. She had a dream that her son was battling war demons and in the next scene he was wrapped in a quilt, his demons at bay. She knew what she had to do and QOV was born. The organization awarded its first quilt in November 2003 to a young soldier from Minnesota who had lost his leg in Iraq. From there it grew, went viral in internet-speak.

Fast forward to 2011 when Kathi and Bonnie got involved. They learned that Sue Wolf of the QoV Foundation put out a call for quilts. That was all the impetus they needed to start sewing. Several of the quilts they made were for what Bonnie and Kathi call “woodworkers”, veterans who were having a hard time with issues ranging from depression to alcoholism, vets who seemed to come “out of the woodwork” when presented with a handmade quilt.

Several quilts stand out in their collective memory. When they heard about Marine SSGT Andrew Saiz, awarded a Silver Star, who was killed with six of his MARSOC Raiders 5 team members in a training helicopter crash off the coast of North Carolina in March 2015, they made one for his parents.

Another quilt took on personal significance. They designed and personalized a quilt to honor a close friend, one of Albuquerque’s true heroes, John Bode, who was awarded an Air Force Cross for valor in Vietnam.  They created a “T-shirt Quilt”, with pictures, logos and airplanes depicted on the shirts. John Bode is a pretty stoic guy, but even he couldn’t keep his eyes from welling up when given the quilt that documented his years in Vietnam.

        

And then there is “Ted’s Quilt”, that will probably stand out as one of the most significant quilts the women ever made. It was conceived after a trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina in September 2016. John Bode received a call that one of his buddies from his Air Force fighter pilot training days over 60 years ago was going through a rough patch. As soon as he spoke with his old friend, Ted, he knew he had to fly east.  You see Ted had been captured and imprisoned in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” (yeah, THAT Hanoi Hilton); he was a POW for 6-1/2 years in what can only be described as a hell hole. It was Ted’s imprisonment that compelled John to volunteer to go to Vietnam. With a history and bond like that it’s no wonder that John sprung into action when he heard his buddy was having a hard time. Kathi and her husband, Air Force Colonel (ret), Wally Henderson flew with John and his wife, Diane, to South Carolina.

At his home Ted showed the group around his “I-Love-Me Room”, the study that his dear wife Ruth had decorated for him with all of Ted’s medals, pictures of all the jets Ted had flown in his Air Force career, all of his unit patches, all of his commendations and achievement awards, and his pictures of being released as a POW. After Ruth’s passing the room took on even greater meaning.

The tour of Ted’s study haunted Kathi. She couldn’t forget Ruth’s careful placement of each item and the love that permeated that room. It was as though Ruth took up residence in the study. The moment Kathi returned from the trip to Spartanburg, she knew exactly what she needed to do and began to design a personalized quilt for Ted. It had to be a T-Shirt quilt, though different than John Bode’s.  It had to have all the elements that Ruth had included in Ted’s study, not an easy task. But given the wonders of the internet she was able to find a number of websites that offered military T-Shirts including all the military jets Ted had flown – the F-86 Sabre, the F-100 Super-Sabre, the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief, as well as the POW/MIA logo, a map of Vietnam, and a “TAC Patch” shirt. First Kathi made fabric transfers of pictures that she had taken in South Carolina and incorporated them into the quilt design. She found two of Ted’s unit patches on eBay – the 13th and the 44th – to appliqué onto the quilt as a finishing touch. She framed the design with fabric featuring grey pilot wings on a red background; the sashing (strips between the blocks) displayed a blue sky with clouds. She even found US Air Force licensed fabric for the back.  After Kathi completed the top and made it into a “quilt sandwich” with the batting and backing fabric, Bonnie machine-quilted it with a military jet pattern on her 12-foot long-arm sewing machine.  Kathi hand-bound the quilt, sewed a label onto the back and appliquéd on the two patches.

Now this is where serendipity chimes into the story. On the following Monday, out of the blue, Ted emailed John and Kathi a letter he had written to Ruth when he was a POW; it was dated Christmas 1970. All it said was, “After four years. No end in sight. Ted”.  Kathi felt like the email was asking for some response, though she wasn’t sure what could be said. She wrote back, “Your letter from 46 years ago touched my heart. Is this your first Christmas without your beloved Ruth?” His reply, “It’s the second. She passed away Dec 16 last year. Ted”.  This unexpected exchange of emails happened on December 13th.

Suddenly everything fell into place. Kathi said, “The quilt positively, absolutely, unmistakenly HAD to be delivered on Friday, December 16th, the first anniversary of Ruth’s passing.”

After Ted opened the package on that Friday, the delivery right on schedule, he wrote, “I am amazed, flabbergasted, dumbstruck. I could not believe what I was unfolding! What wonderful workmanship. My sister came over later and took  pictures. She wants to hang it on one of my walls. I said not until I spend the rest of the winter keeping warm with it. You are right. I can feel the warmth and love that comes with it. PS. Ruth loves it too.”

Kathi replied, “Ted, I believe our visit in September, the conception of a QoV for you, the design, the timing — were all meant to be. Call it the work of angels; call it kismet; call it karma; call it quantum entanglement. It was just meant to be. I know Ruth loves it…”

Talk about making a difference. So the next time you think you can’t do something to brighten the life of another, think again. The simplest act can make the greatest impact in ways you can never imagine. Kudos to Kathi and Bonnie for keeping the spirit of giving back alive.

For more information on the Quilts of Valor Foundation please visit them here.

Texas Wonder Woman

TWW Ricki 2You’ve probably heard the phrase, “she be small, but she be mighty”. That pretty much describes Ricky Polcer of Tyler, Texas. Though a woman of small stature, that has not deterred her from finding needs and filling them. Like others profiled on this blog, she radiates goodness.

Her story begins with quilts, simple quilts that comfort people across the United States. She learned the craft from her aunt who taught her how to piece together fabrics at the age of eight. She didn’t get serious about quilt making until her retirement from the civil service in 2001 and then she began making quilts and more quilts and yes, more quilts. To date Ricky has made over 1,120 quilts since she hung up her day job and began using her talents for helping others. Of course you must be wondering what one woman needs or does with 1,120 quilts. Charity. She makes quilts for charity. And are they grateful!

Of that mind boggling number she has made and donated 146 quilts to the National Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study Quilt Project that provides lap sized quilts to TWW quiltspatients who participate in Alzheimer’s research. Her father suffered from Alzheimer’s for over 10 years, the last eight months in a coma, and knew well what patients and their families endure. She says she makes quilts for the project because “it’s one way I can give back in his memory.”

Ricky also sews for the Quilts for Kids chapter in Austin, Texas, an organization that provides quilts to children with life – threatening illnesses and children of abuse. Ricky’s says “I love knowing I’ve provided someone with warmth and love, giving throughout the year, it’s a good feeling.” She had made and donated 982 quilts to QFK to date.

Those child and teen quilts go to a variety of local kids’ causes such as CASA, (Court Appointed Special Advocates), for newborns to teens aged 18, who are removed from their homes due to neglect, abuse, parent incarceration or death. Another group that receives her quilts is Hospice Austin for newborns to kids up to 18 who are either a Hospice patient or have an immediate family member in Hospice. A third organization who receives her quilts is the Dell Children’s/Ronald McDonald House for children undergoing long term treatment for a life altering disease or condition.

And then there are the girls at New Life. These children aged 11-18 have suffered the unfathomable: severe physical, sexual and mental abuse.  The girls who live in and go to school at New Life undergo psychiatric intervention to turn their tumultuous lives around. Many are suicidal when they enter New Life.  My gosh, what do you do for a kid like that? Ricky knows; she has made a bunch of quilts for the girls as well as 288 pillow cases that the girls received at the holidays. To give the girls something fun to purchase in the New Life facility store, she whipped up 104 cosmetic bags that they girls can “buy” using good behavior points that work like money.  To make sure there was makeup the girls could buy to put in the cosmetic cases Ricky purchased 200 e.l.f. cosmetics to line the store shelves. She also made 36 fleece throws and 153 totes the girls can purchase in the little store.

TWW two pupsDoes this woman have a heart as big as Texas, or what? She makes the Energizer Bunny look like a slacker especially because that’s not all this spunky woman does. Ricky is as passionate about her other “hobby” as what she sews for those in need.

Since 2007 when she took in her first greyhound and got involved with Greyhounds TWW Ricki & pupsUnlimited of Dallas, Texas she has been fostering and adopting the elegant former racing dogs. To date Ricky has fostered 10 “greyts” with medical issues, and adopted eight. At this time she cares for two greyts, an eight year-old named Jinx and seven year-old Manuel. To be expected she sews for the dogs too, items like fleece belly bands to keep male dogs from marking the inside of a house. The woman’s energy knows no limits.

I’m not sure that this dynamo eats or sleeps, how else does she do it? I imagine that joy and the elation of giving back plays a big part. When asked her favorite part of quilting she answered, “I treasure the quiet time with my greyhounds at my feet helping.” For Ricky, quilts and greyhounds go hand in hand. Quilts and greyts, what a sweet combo.

Do you know of a selfless hero or heroine like Ricky Polcer in your town? If so, I’d like to hear about it. Please leave a comment below.

 

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.

 

Creating Horse Whisperers

VR Small girl and horseHorses: What majestic, elegant creatures of beauty and grace. And in thundering herds, what power and strength. To be able to communicate with a horse eye-to-eye and with a whisper, using only slight movements to direct motion, demonstrates a gift of true mutual trust. Now, imagine being a child who has had more than their share of problems or hardships, looking up at a large horse and being able develop that relationship and mastery. Talk about a confidence builder!

Okay—a Horse Whisperer is technically “a horse trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the horse, based on modern equine psychology”. It takes years of experience to attain that level of expertise, and we all know that is beyond the scope of a young child. Perhaps the terms “friend, buddy or pal” are more appropriate. In any event, learning to bond with a horse comes with lasting life lessons.

There is a place where kids are experiencing that important outcome: Victory Ranch, Inc. in San Jose, California works with kids 8 to 16 years old to help them grow and develop life skills. These are neglected or abused kids, some suffering from depression or addiction, perhaps from broken homes or live in foster care. Some are kids who could use a helping hand and some positive goodness to keep them out of the juvenile justice system. In general, the emphasis is working with disadvantaged, under-served, at-risk, neglected, abused, and low-income youth, that include foster, adopted, and siblings of kids with life-threatening illnesses. Oh, did I mention—there’s no charge for the kids participating in the program?

VR Doug instructing with horseDoug Hutten founded Victory Ranch, Inc. in 2006. He started riding horses at age 6, and his adult equestrian experience spans over forty years which includes avid trail riding, competing, stable management, training, volunteering with special needs organizations, writing for Western Horseman Magazine, working with various equestrian Search & Rescue Teams in two states, organizing and managing a PRCA-sanctioned event, and Charity-Celebrity Trail Rides. In other words, he knows his way around horses.

VR Grooming

He has been involved numerous Horseman Associations and charitable organizations for a long time, giving back to those who need assistance. When he witnessed the great number of troubled kids in the Bay Area, he put his knowledge of horses into focus, and knew he could put the two together to create positive behavior changes. Doug realized that kids talk to dogs; if he could get them to feel safe and open up by talking with horses, only good would come of it. He was right.

One success story is Nick Campbell, now 20 and a student at UC Davis. He was just going into high school in 2009 with a lot of extracurricular time on his hands when he entered the program. “My main job was to help muck out the stalls, groom the horses (and bathe them when the weather permitted), exercise them and keep them in practice with Doug’s style of horse training. It’s very important to be constantly making sure that they know their roles and how to behave on the ground, as well as while being ridden.”

The Kids & Horses Education Program (KHEP) is a 5-week after-school and weekend education program which creates positive behavioral changes in almost every child enrolled. Participants engage in tasks with horses that are fun and facilitate communication and teamwork. The horses themselves encourage cooperation and creative thinking, and are capable, sentient mental health team members providing non-judgmental feedback to the kids.

The staff members are certified in utilizing horses in therapy, and when a child needs special help, the Ranch also offers Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) utilizing qualified mental health/clinical professionals. The kids are continually monitored by staff who employ program evaluation, questionnaires, and applied observational field research to help measure their progress.

VR kids muckingDoes it work? Oh, yeah, and very well. Kids learn that they can influence something larger than themselves in a positive way, making them feel better about themselves. The conclusions validate that the goals of the KHEP Program (improved life skills – self-confidence, team work, social skills, personal achievement, focus/follow directions, communication skills, and knowledge of horses) are improved/achieved in the majority of students.

As Nick says, “I became a much harder worker because of VR, and a lot better at time management.”

And when a child graduates from the program with a certificate, they are designated “Buckaroos” (467 total graduates to date) and are invited to return to help mentor the younger first-time participants in future sessions. Not only is it fun to help out, but the positive messages are reinforced while developing leadership skills.

Returning as a Buckaroo, Nick recounts, “During the programs for the foster children, my job was to support Doug and Pat as a kind of teaching aide. I had gone through the program as an observer, so I knew the structure. I helped teach the skills the program tries to impart to the kids, and made sure that everyone was kept in the group. The kids were not allowed to be with the horses by themselves, a volunteer or leader had to be with them at all times, especially when they got to be on the horses.”

What’s next for Victory Ranch? With as many children in the Bay Area who really need the kind of positive help the Ranch provides, the natural course is to increase the number of sessions to accommodate as many as they can. They also want to start a program for the Horsemanship Merit Badge for the Boy Scouts, Varsity Scouts and Venturers. And then there’s the planned expansion into the critical need of serving returning Veterans suffering PTSD. By mirroring the efforts and success they’ve had with the children, translating the horse therapy to the Veterans is sure to have a profound effect.

VR Doug instructing with harness

Would Nick Campbell recommend Victory Ranch to parents of deserving kids? “Definitely, seeing the way that shy, reserved kids start the program and end up with friends and skills that allow them to be social is amazing. A lot of the kids can’t work in group because of shyness or anxiety in the beginning, but they really open up through working with the horses and with other kids in their situations.”

VR Group ShotOf course operating as a non-profit, funding the Victory Ranch programs has always been challenging. Fortunately several foundations and corporate sponsors of note have seen the benefits their support has made (see the website for their list). An endeavor that includes 23 staff and board members (mostly volunteers), the need is constant to make sure that there are enough funds available to feed the horses, pay the rent and provide the free service they do so well. And to ‘take it to the next level’ with additional services, fundraising activities takes a bit of their time and attention. You can learn more about Victory Ranch by visiting the website. If you can help the Buckeroos in any way, I’m sure they would appreciate your interest.

By the way, although they call the graduates “Buckaroos” I prefer the term “Horse Whisperers”. It better demonstrates the magic that happens at Victory Ranch.

 

One Cuddle at a Time

Cuddle 3

Darlene Piche of San Diego has always loved to cuddle babies. She got her fill when her two children were young and her five grandchildren were growing, especially when they would climb into her lap all at one time. Then all the kids grew up; the youngest grandchild is now 14.

“I needed to have some babies in my life,” she says recalling how much she really missed her cuddle time.

Prior to her retiring from UC San Diego she applied to be a cuddler volunteer at UC San Diego Health’s 28 year-old cuddler program that trains and hosts volunteers to hold and cuddle tiny infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She was told there was a three year waiting list; she was prepared to wait and was ecstatic when she got called after two years. That was 14 months ago. She underwent four hours of training and began cuddling one morning every week for a four hour shift. She has always been the type of person with a smile on her face, but these days Darlene sports a constant grin; her joy emits like sunlight breaking a darkened morn.

Cuddling a full term, healthy baby is a no-brainer for most people. Not everyone has the capacity to cuddle a tiny, oftentimes sick, premature baby, so tiny its arms are the diameter of an adult’s finger, its little body attached to beeping monitors and a mind-boggling array of tubes. Darlene does, because she says she gets as much out of it as the babies do. She especially relishes seeing how the babies progress from one week to the next.

“It’s always gratifying to see a smile, even from the tiniest baby. I’ve seen cuddling truly make a difference. When I stroke their brows or put my hand on their heads or just hold and cuddle and burp them they feel my heart beat. It’s reassuring to them.”

NICU volunteering runs in Darlene’s family. Her sister has been a cuddler in the program for 10 years. For Darlene it’s a continuation of a previous career. Before she worked at UCSD she had a massage therapy business where she massaged both pregnant women and assisted in birthing. She remembers it as a wonderful experience adding that this is even better.

“I’ve told the nurses that I love retirement because this is the best job I’ve ever had.”

It seems easy enough, right? Holding a precious baby, giving it that human contact, watching it react to your touch? Sometimes it’s not so simple.

“The neediest ones are the drug babies because they have such a reaction to withdrawal; they’re in so much pain and kind of jittery,” she says. “Cuddling calms them.” Darlene estimates that she cuddles drug withdrawal babies every other week; it’s a common occurrence in the NICU. “When they’re awake they can’t just be laying in their cribs all the time. You gotta be interacting with them.”

Though cuddling is good for the babies and gives great purpose and joy to the cuddlers, it’s the parents who are probably most grateful to have a loving hand helping to take care of their child. Michelle Brubaker, who works with the NICU at UC San Diego Health and is a mother of two young children says that the parents want to be with their babies 24/7, but depending on where they live and what other responsibilities they have, that isn’t’ always possible.

“The role of the cuddler is so critical because it allows parents a break without feeling guilty,” she says. “They know that the cuddlers are filling that role for them. As a parent you want to be there non-stop, realistically that isn’t always possible.” She says that the cuddlers allow them to attend to children at home, jobs and preparing for the new baby who likely came much earlier than expected.

Lynne Trumbore, R.N., coordinator of the NICU’s cuddler program, says that the positive TLC and human contact the cuddlers provide help the babies grow quicker allowing them to go home sooner, adding that cuddling helps them develop neurologically, preparing them for their lives ahead. She says that research has shown this over and over.

A classic study on premature infants published in Biological Psychiatry offered an explanation as to why humans are hard wired for cuddling. Twenty years ago Dr. Ruth Feldman, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv assembled two groups of 73 babies at two Israeli hospitals. One group received no kangaroo care (holding babies) and in the other group the mothers held and cuddled their premature babies one hour per day for two weeks. They ran the study twice, once in 1996 and again in 1998, switching which hospital provided kangaroo care. They examined the babies at 3, 6, 12 and 24 months, and later at ages 5 and 10 years. Feldman discovered that the kangaroo group outperformed the non-kangaroo group in multiple ways from improved sleep patterns to heart and respiratory rates to attention to the ability to direct their gaze and enact actions to achieve a goal. A decade later the children who were held showed better stress management skills too, as determined by the measurement of cortisol in their bodies. Feldman stated that the most remarkable aspect of the study was how little kangaroo care resulted in such a pronounced outcome – just 14 total hours over 14 days.

Although research confirms that cuddling premature infants has far reaching effects, Trumbore also views the cuddlers as a kind of Godsend, especially when other babies need immediate attention and nurses are pulled away to assist in a critical situation.

“We can’t be everywhere. Having the cuddlers there to help really decreases the nurses stress levels.” She adds that the cuddlers are critical to the operation of the NICU, noting that the cuddlers see it differently.  “The cuddlers say that they’re the winners because there’s something very therapeutic about sitting and holding and cuddling a baby.”

Darlene agrees. “I get as much out of the cuddling as the babies do.”

Sometimes goodness presents itself as angels among us. If those babies could talk they would probably say that Darlene Piche of San Diego is one of them.

Interested in being a cuddler? Contact your local hospital or if you are in the San Diego area contact the NICU at UC San Diego Health: 619-543-6560.