Though 13-year-old Kara Peters cannot verbalize it, the Virgil girl always had a soft spot for animals, especially dogs. So when seeking help for Kara's Down syndrome and autism, her family thought a service dog might be an ideal companion.
When the Elburn Leo Club heard about Kara's need, members decided to make the family's dream a reality, combining with the Lions Club to make a $13,000 donation to service dog organization 4 Paws For Ability. Saturday the club will host a spaghetti dinner fundraiser, complete with raffle prizes, a silent auction and a bags tournament at Lions Park, 500 Filmore St. Festivities begin at 3 p.m.
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Pam Hall, Leo Club adviser and first vice president for the Lions Club, said this project is a "perfect fit" for the clubs' mission of community service.
"This will affect peoples' lives in a tangible way," she said. "It's very rewarding (for club members) to physically see how their hard work and volunteerism pay off."
Thanks to the Leos and Lions, Kara will receive an autism assistance dog in April. The family will travel to the Ohio-based 4 Paws For Ability agency to be trained with the dog. In the coming year, the dog Kara will receive will be specifically trained to deal with behaviors Kara exhibits, including her sleep disorder and tendency to run away.
"Her biggest struggles right now are transitioning -- going from one place to another," said Karol Peters, Kara's mother. "Her anxiety makes her tend to want to leave social situations."
In addition to bolting from Karol in public places, Kara has tried to run away from home, which is near a high-speed country road.
"She just has no conscious thought about safety," said John Peters, Kara's father. "We have to constantly keep an eye on her."
A unique aspect of the service dog is its tethering system -- Kara will be tethered to the dog by a harness when she goes out, including school and social situations.
Karen Shirk, founder and executive director of 4 Paws For Ability, said the dogs are trained to sit or lie down when a child tries to run, literally anchoring them. If a child does get away, the dogs are trained to track them by scent.
"There's that constant fear when you have a child that doesn't realize the dangers in their environment," Shirk said. "Every second they're missing, something horrible can happen to them. These dogs are a family's personal search and rescue dog. It's literally the difference between life and death for some of these kids."
Based on her own experience with a service dog, Shirk founded 4 Paws For Ability in 1998, which now distributes approximately 100 dogs in a year, both nationally and internationally. Shirk said she found unexpected advantages for herself and her clients, namely companionship.
"Dogs are straightforward," she said. "They're not complicated, they're easy to relate to and nonjudgmental. Especially for children, service dogs kind of make the kids' disability disappear. Without a dog, someone might seem different, but through getting to know the service dog, lots of kids get to know the child with disabilities as a person."
That comes as a relief to Marisa, 15, who is protective of her sister, keeping a constant watch in the summer. Since Marisa is in a different school district, she cannot always watch over her sister where other kids are involved.
"I sometimes worry about bullying with special needs kids," she said. "It hurts me when people make fun of Kara. I hope the dog can be a rock and support for her."
Kara spends her summer with a tutor in the morning and much of the rest of the day in the acre expanse of a backyard that backs up to cornfields. After taking turns riding on and driving the lawn tractor, Kara jumps on the trampoline. When it gets too hot, she turns to her favorite activity: Swimming in the pool.
The Leo Club was informed of Kara's situation by family friend Carrie Capes, whose son, Max, is Kara's best friend and received a service dog thanks to the club.
Karol Peters said the family is grateful and eager to see how the dog will enrich Kara's life.
"This dog will provide an amazing companionship," she said. "This is just an amazing, wonderful gift."