Working Together

by Russ Pulley | Lees Summit Journal

Terri and Ken Wible were looking for help for their daughter, Adriana, when they got an autism service dog.

Adriana, 10, could have overwhelming emotions when stressed by the sensory overload that plagues people with austim disorders. She’d have angry outbursts, sometimes violent. The Wibles, of Lee’s Summit, were isolated, avoiding public situations that were difficult for their daughter.

“It would be five minutes max before she blows,” Wible said, noting it made trips to the grocery or eating out impossible.

With her dog, Grady trained to notice when Adriana’s anxiety is going up and to be a calming influence, the family’s life is much different. Grady goes everywhere with her, including school. Outbursts are rare and moderate.

“We can actually go out to a restaurant, go shopping, go on vacation. We can go to the park, when before we couldn’t,” Wible said.

Now only a couple of years later Terri Wible is sharing what they’ve learned with dozens of other families and on the way to providing some of those children service dogs of their own.

Wible realized while getting a dog for her daughter, she also wanted to begin helping other families. She lay the groundwork for a not-for-profit agency that would be ready to go once they’d gotten their dog and training in 2011.

PAWS 4 Autism was born.

There are similar groups in other areas, but PAWS 4 Autism is the one in this region working specifically with autism service dogs. Trained service dogs can cost $15,000 to $20,000.

“That’s a huge financial commitment and a huge leap of faith,” Wible said.

There’s also the ongoing expense of food, vet bills and the need for continual training to keep the dogs’ skills sharp.

Not all families will need or want a dog, but the children can still benefit from experiences with the animal, so Wible is offering a two-pronged approach.

Wible started CASSIE, which stands for Canine Assisted Social Skills Education.

Wible, who works in marketing, formerly had been a special education teacher for many years in the Kansas City School District.

Evenings she volunteers to take another autism service dog, Franklyn to meet with 32 individual children and families. She also takes him twice a week to work with children in Ozanam, a home for troubled children.

“I love getting the smiles and looks of hope,” Wible said.

Wible also provides in-service training for restaurant servers on etiquette for customers who use service dogs and talks on disabilities for other groups.

PAWS 4 Autism is stepping up its fund-raising efforts to raise money to expand. There’s a waiting list of 148 children for CASSIE, Wible said, and 18 families hoping to get a service dog.

She’s recruited two breeders of Standard Poodles who’ve promised to donate one pup from each of their litters to PAWS 4 Autism.

The poodles are ideal, Wible said, because the breed is smart and the right size, 70 to 80 pounds, for rough and tumble children who need to give their dog a solid, deep hug.

Two dogs are now in training to be placed with families, or to be used by caseworkers the agency plans to hire, depending on how the dogs respond to training.

Wible intends to complete her own instruction to be a master dog trainer.

The agency needs to raise about $75,000 to expand CASSIE by hiring two caseworkers, and for dogs and equipment.

Wible said she will remain a volunteer executive director.

Eventually the agency also hopes to hire an administrator, so Wible can devote more time to training and outreach.

It is holding fundraisers including an Easter egg hunt in April and a race Memorial Day weekend. It will again have a fireworks tent in Lee’s Summit and is planning a volleyball tournament and other events.

Michelle Toomey, a member of the not-for-profit’s Board of Directors, said she became friends with Wible and got involved when they’d met through PTA at school.

Toomey said she’s seen first-hand the transformation Adriana made with Grady and is excited about seeing the service available to other families.

Her daughter Trinity goes to the same school as Adriana. Before getting a service dog, Adriana wasn’t social, didn’t have any friends. The dog helped the girl develop more empathy and social skills.

Trinity is a mentor to Adriana and the two are now good friends, having sleepovers and riding bicycles together, she said.

Toomey’s son Nathan, 14, is also friends with Adriana and her brother Craig, 9, who also has an autism spectrum disorder. Nathan takes them on walks and fishing.

Toomey said so many families with special needs children have enough challenges meeting their own children’s needs. Rarely does someone have the entrepreneurial spirit or background in special education like Wible, which enables them to help others too.

“As much as she does, it’s beyond me,” Toomey said. “I think we’re right on the cusp from being a fledgling organization to being something that’s going to reach out and really touch this community.”