Putnam Family Day goes to the dogs

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Putnam - posted Tue., Oct. 4, 2011
Alexis Courneen's NEADS' dog Sooner is right at home in Rotary Park. Photos by D. Coffey.
Alexis Courneen's NEADS' dog Sooner is right at home in Rotary Park. Photos by D. Coffey.

Putnam Family Day and a Lions fundraiser for New England Assistance Dog Services shared the grounds of Rotary Park on Oct. 1.  The only difference was that most people brought along their four-legged family members. And for good reason. The fundraiser was a dog walk to raise money for NEADS' Canine for Combat Veterans program.

NEADS has provided assistance dogs for deaf and disabled Americans for more than 35 years. In 2006, the organization began the first program of its kind to serve disabled veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Because of the intensive training programs required for the dogs and their partners, the cost associated with a service dog is $20,000.

If you needed any proof of that value, Alexis Courneen provided it. Courneen manned the NEADS booth with her service dog, Sooner, a yellow Labrador retriever. Looking the picture of good health, Courneen spoke with people who stopped for information. What wasn't obvious was her disability. She has trouble with balance, migraines, and moving her right arm and hand. She suffers from memory problems. On bad days, she uses an electric wheelchair. On good days, she ventures out with Sooner by her side.

Courneen suffered nerve damage to her right arm and hand and a traumatic brain injury while serving in the Coast Guard. “My brain has to work 10 times harder now,” she said. “Some days I can barely move my right hand.” Those are the days she relies on Sooner to fetch things, open doors, and pick things off the counter that she cannot grab. The dog steadies her when she has trouble with her balance. “Some days I'm a hot mess walking,” she said.

Courneen, her husband and daughters were at Rotary Park spreading the message of hope that NEADS' dogs give. “It's like I'm paying back a gift,” she said.

She is often approached by well-intentioned people when she and Sooner are out in public. And although she would love to just blend in, she takes the time to answer questions that come her way.

John Ferland echoes the praise for NEADS dogs. He was at Rotary Park with Moses, his late wife's service dog. “It's a great organization,” he said. “The dogs provide physical assistance, but the owners get emotionally bonded with them, too. They love them. They're wonderful.”

John's wife, Dawn, used to take Moses to work at H.H. Ellis Technical School in Killingly. The standard poodle even had his own school tag. He is smart, gentle, and best of all being around kids and adults, hypoallergenic, Ferland said.

Ferland's son-in-law is an Army Ranger platoon sergeant who has done four tours of duty. Many of his comrades have suffered injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Anything you can do for those guys coming back,” Ferland said.

The Putnam Lions were able to raise $2,000 for Canines for Combat Veterans that afternoon.

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