Ed Kinkeade’s wife Melissa Kinkeade nudged him to keep his talk on Friday, February 16, at the Canine Companions for Independence South Central Graduation and Puppy Matriculation ceremony short. Thank heaven, Ed turned a deaf ear to his wife.
The overflow crowd of two-, three- and four-legged creatures filled Texas’ only CCI Training Center in Irving for the program that provides service dogs free of charge to perform daily tasks for people with physical disabilities.
Despite the Irving facility’s being the sixth CCI training center, it was the first to be associated with a healthcare provider — Baylor Scott And White Health. And the Baylor crew was front and center with Board of Trustees Chair Jim Turner, Chief Legal Officer Jennifer Brown. and CEO Jim Hinton, who made the rounds visiting with the puppy raisers and showing cellphone shots of his own dogs.
Also on hand for the event were donors like the Rees-Jones gals (mama hen Jan Rees-Jones and daughters-in-law Margaret Rees-Jones and Jenny Rees-Jones) and Diane Brierley (husband Hal Brierley admitted to his wife at 4 a.m. he couldn’t handle the turning over of puppies from raisers to the trainers). In Hal’s place, Diane brought along Melissa Hearon and was joined by Neiman Marcus Director of Charitable Giving Kevin Hurst, who came prepared — he brought his own tissue. Kevin need not worry. There were plenty of tissue boxes throughout the room and they were put to use as the puppies took their next step in becoming service dog companions. But the tears were quickly replaced with smiles as the seven new teams became official partners for life.
And leave it to the dogs to relieve the anxiety of the humans in attendance. As David Lowe was midway in the pre-graduation’s invocation, a woof was heard from the back of the room. David admitted that in the years to come, he would remember that “Amen.” Without missing a beat, Ed followed David saying, “My Baptist preacher dad would say, ‘I’ll take an Amen anyway I can get it.’”
Using his Mark Twain charm, he explained that at the Thursday night get together with the puppy raisers, he had been prepared for a dirge-like scene. Instead the raisers were celebrating their puppies “matriculating. I’m learning that word.”
Some of the puppies had been trained by individuals and families. Some had been trained by people serving time in prison. But all had been lovingly cared for and trained. As poignant as the tales and photos were of the puppy raisers, the backstories of the seven graduating dogs’ future companions made all understand the pooches’ calling.
Following the presentation of the dozens of puppies entering the final training stage to see if they make the cut, the graduation of seven lifelong teams took place. In being called to the stage, the graduating dogs were handed over to the recipients by their puppy trainers who hailed from Montana, Houston, Huntsville, Orlando and Austin. One even came from the Canine Companions for Independence headquarters in Santa Rosa, California. It was a bittersweet moment for all, but seeing the faces of the recipients and knowing that their lives would be forever changed brought home the mission of the program and replaced tears with smiles.
Marcia, who suffers from Parkinson’s, was selected as the class spokesperson. With Sadie VII at her side, she read remembrances from her classmates describing the past two weeks in which the teams were matched, introduced and trained. Each was unique. There was Aaron, who despite being wheelchair bound, was on his way to college and an Eagle Scout. His mother Beverly was so proud of his accomplishments and was so happy knowing that Katherine II would be with him.
These were recipients and their families who had never known each other. But after going through the matching with their dogs and the bonding process had allowed them to become a unique family of people and pooches.
In the crowd was one man — Jason Morgan. Like others, he had his CCI BFF Rue II with him, but he had a backstory, too. Despite having broken his back in combat, losing a leg, becoming a single dad of three boys and his life seeming to spiral downward, the CCI program turned everything around. So much so, that his story served as the inspiration that helped Kinkeade and so many others to create the multi-million dollar facility in Irving.
But as important as the funds have been and continue to be, there is a need for puppy raisers. They are a vital part of this life-program. If you are interested in being part of the CCI effort to help a canine on his/her first steps to its lifelong mission, check here.