Paws for the cause: Naples Area Board for Realtors hosts fundraiser for Paws for Patriots program

Southeastern Guide Dog’s Paws for Patriot program describes a patriot as one who loves and defends his or her country. Their mission therein for their Paws for Patriots program is strikingly simple: the least we can do in return.

On Wednesday night, dozens of local Naples Realtors showed up to support exactly this mission. In an after work event at Bokamper’s Sports Bar and Grill it was all about raising money for veterans in need.

“Nothing touches the heart more than assisting our veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq,” said event organizer and local Realtor Brett Brown, adding, “We want people to know that Realtors are behind our patriots and we want to make sure that when they return they have the services they need.”

The Paws for Patriots program is for wounded veterans. The initiative, which is an extension of Palmetto, Fla.-based Southeastern Guide Dogs’ services, places both guide and assistance dogs with wounded soldiers as well as soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The program was started in 2006, when the nonprofit noticed an influx of soldiers coming back with visual impairments. A common result from improvised explosive device (IED) and roadside bomb attacks, the Veteran’s Administration does not offer guide dogs as a long-term option for soldiers with vision loss.

From there the program has grown, with Paws for Patriots now donating dogs for amputees, the visually impaired and those suffering from PTSD.

“The dogs are trained in very specific ways,” said public relations specialist for the program, Jennifer Bement. “For assistance dogs trained to help with PTSD, they’re taught how to block to give a soldier more space in a crowded area, and how to watch behind the soldier to alert them to anyone coming from behind them.”

But beyond the technical skills and valuable guide and assistance services the dogs provide, they also offer unmatched emotional companionship to veterans who are facing a difficult transition back to civilian life.

Said Shawn Mello, an amputee and retired member of the Army Special Forces of his goldador, Harpo, “Mentally, he’s there for me. He brings a calming presence. He gives me that look that says, ‘It’s all good.’ With Harpo, I’m better able to cope.”

But raising, training and placing the dogs isn’t without its costs. “The cost for placing a dog for life is estimated at over $60,000 per dog,” said Bement. “It’s a very involved process,” she added, detailing the rigorous 26-day training period the dog and veteran must complete at the center’s 23-acre facility. And since the organization charges nothing for the dogs and receives no government funding, they rely heavily on events like Wednesday night’s fundraiser to keep their operation running.

Luckily for them, on Wednesday night, Naples’ Realtors came energized for the cause. During a live auction, which auctioned off everything from rounds of golf to massages, Realtor Mike Hughes paid $150 for two weeks in a prime parking space at the Naples Area Board of Realtors building.

“I’ll never use it,” said Hughes good naturedly, adding, “but it’s for a good cause.”

For Emily Dall, the event planner at Bokamper’s Sports Bar and Grill, opening their doors to the event was an easy decision. “I’m a dog lover, and the cause absolutely touched my heart,” Dall said, adding, “It was an absolute ‘yes.’”

Bokamper’s not only provided the venue, but they also offered up free wings to guests, and donated two hefty prize baskets for the raffle.

Raising the event’s cute-factor were two dogs from Paws for Patriots’ sister organization, local group PAWS Assistance Dogs. The mother-daughter team of Jeannie Bates and Tiffany Campbell, who run the Naples-based guide and assistance dog program allowed dogs Jazzy and Casey to mingle with the crowd while the two explained some of the nuances of raising, training and placing assistance dogs.

Campbell and Bates explained that in order for a dog to make the cut as a service animal they must posses an intense sense of loyalty, a willingness to serve, and an ability to stay calm no matter the situation. As the two spoke, it was impossible to ignore that these are the exact traits that make America’s patriots the bravest and best soldiers in the world, and the exact reason why returning soldiers deserve the utmost in care, be it a state-of-the-art prosthesis, access to education or retraining programs, or the love and assistance provided by a loyal four-footed friend.

© 2011 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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