Fining it forward for a furry friend

Local students break dress code to raise funds for service dog nonprofit


Children look up to heroes and want to help them when they can, so it isn't surprising when they respond with fundraisers and awareness campaigns to support local members of the Armed Services. But add dogs to the equation, and they get worked up enough to reach veterans across the country.

Students at North Star Academy recently raised over $1,000 for the group paws4vets, a nonprofit in North Carolina that connects children with disabilities and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to assistance dogs at no cost to individuals they help.

“It was easy for them to get excited about it,” North Star Principal Kendra Hossfeld said.

It all started with a presentation in November 2016 by Elise Hunt, a Virginia resident and 24-year Army veteran who retired in January as a lieutenant colonel. She was also teacher Kristin Smith's college roommate and longtime friend.

Hunt suffers from PTSD as a result of combat and a sexual assault that occurred during her time in the Army, and had been provided a black Labrador named COWBOY (the group spells the dogs' names in capital letters for clerical reasons) from paws4vets.

For Hossfeld, Hunt's visit was a chance for the students to show appreciation for Hunt's service and an opportunity to learn about what dogs like COWBOY can do.

“We felt the students would benefit from having a veteran who experienced PTSD sharing her personal experiences and learning about emotional assistance dogs,” Hossfeld said.

Students got involved with a unique fundraiser in which they were invited to break the school's dress code by wearing a hat of their choice and paying a $3 “fine,” with proceeds going to paws4vets.

Hunt didn't go into details about the circumstances of her trauma, but related her partnership with her new canine companion in a way the students could understand.

“I just explained to them that a lot of things happen in life that are traumatic,” Hunt said. “I asked how many of them have dogs or pets, and I asked them how it makes them feel to come home to them, especially after a bad day — I said. 'We are looking for that too.'”

Hunt explained some of COWBOY's tasks and talents, like alerting her if someone approaches from behind and making a nuisance of himself to preoccupy her if he smells her cortisol levels, and corresponding stress levels, rising.

Part of the paws4vets plan involves a voluntary “pay it forward” campaign which Hunt is currently participating in. She puts in between 40 and 50 hours a month in “sweat equity,” helping start a residential treatment facility for the group in Wilmington, North Carolina, and she's trying to raise $10,000.

“It's a small price to pay for all of the benefit it's given me,” Hunt said. “Having him is great, but being able to couple that with something that helps other people is even better.”

North Star Academy, paws4vets, pets, Parker, Tom Skelley


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