Marvelous Mercer and CCI
For more and more people with disabilities the road to a better quality life starts with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). CCI is a nonprofit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships. Service Dogs aid people with disabilities by performing tasks that they have difficulty performing themselves, thus giving them more independence. This invaluable service is free of charge and the recipients are not responsible for the costly process of breeding, raising, and training each canine companion. CCI receives no government funding; therefore, they rely on private contributions, grants, and ongoing fundraising events to continue to fulfill their mission, which they have been doing for over thirty years.
CCI trains canine companion teams at five regional training centers throughout the country. In team training, a person is paired with a suitable canine, and both human and dog are trained together. This two-week session allows them to bond as a team and teaches the recipient how to handle and properly care for his or her canine companion. CCI trains four types of companion teams: Service, Hearing, Facility, and Skilled Companion. In Service Team training, people with physical and/or developmental disabilities work with an assistance dog to expand their abilities in performing certain physical tasks such as opening doors or retrieving dropped items. Hearing Teams are trained so that canine companions learn to assist the hearing impaired by alerting them to everyday sounds such as telephones, alarm clocks, or smoke alarms. Facility Teams are for adults who work as caregivers, rehabilitation professionals and educators, and who wish to use a canine companion to improve the mental and physical health of those in their care. Finally, Skilled Companion Teams composed of three people, often including a parent or spouse who works and trains alongside the disabled child or partner and the canine companion. They also need help with everyday physical tasks, and like all CCI’s graduates, develop a strong emotional bond with their canine friend.
This is true for twelve-year-old Shea Megale. Shea was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) Type II at the age of eighteen months. SMA is a rare genetic disease that destroys the motor neurons of the spinal cord and brainstem, affecting voluntary muscle movement. This includes activities such as crawling, walking, head and neck control, and even swallowing. Only one out of six thousand babies are born with SMA. In April 1998, 45 participants gathered in Centreville, Virginia, for the “Walk for Shea” to raise awareness and money to fund research for a cure for this rare disorder. The walk has since raised nearly $150,000 and gathered over 600 participants. In April of this year they will be celebrating their eleventh annual “Walk for Shea.”
When Shea was five years old, her family began the search for an assistance dog for her. In the spring of 2004, Shea and her mom, Megan, traveled to New York for the two-week CCI training course. Shea spent those two weeks training and bonding with Mercer, a five-year-old Golden Retriever-black Labrador mix. They are now inseparable and to say the least, make a marvelous team. “Mercer can open doors, ring a door bell, carry my lunch and books at school, and only barks on command,”says Shea, but most of all, “Mercer has become my best friend and has been more emotional support for me.”
Shea is an exceptionally bright girl with an extraordinary imagination. Last year, around Thanksgiving, Shea’s mother, Megan, was cleaning up Shea’s room when she came across her diary. Curious, Megan read the diary and discovered a series of stories starring Mercer. In these stories, Mercer sneaks out of the house after Shea has fallen asleep and goes on adventures with his canine pals. Shea’s mom never knew that Shea had been thinking about these things all this time. “I realized that she was doing things like ice-skating and sledding, things that she would never really be able to achieve on her own, but doing it through Mercer,” says Megan. Shea says that is the reason why Mercer has two sets of legs, so he can do the walking for both of them.
With the help and encouragement of family and friends, Megan and Shea decided to publish the stories in a series of six children’s books. The first book titled, Marvelous Mercer, was released in September of last year. The book, and a plush “Marvelous Mercer” toy are available at FAO Schwarz and on the “Marvelous Mercer” website at http://marvelousmercer.com/ . Shea and Mercer hosted a book reading and signing at the FAO Schwarz in NYC to promote the book. Megan and Shea hope that the book will raise awareness of this disease, as well as raise money in support of a cure for spinal muscular atrophy and the Canine Companions for Independence. Please enjoy this excerpt from the first book of the Marvelous Mercer series.
“Sorry I’m late, but I had to wait until Shea was asleep and crawl past Curley and then get past Mr. Snodgrass’s house without waking his cats… ”
“That’s okay, Mercer. We were just thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, after all,” said Monte. “It’s dark and cold and scary and our paws are going to stick to the ice like our tongues on a frozen pole. Besides, who ever heard of dogs skating?”
“You’re right, Monte, it’s not a good idea, it’s a GREAT idea,” said Mercer. “We’ll be the first dogs to win medals at the Olympics. Let’s go before it’s too late. Shea and I have an early school bus to catch tomorrow morning. The rink is not far. I was there this morning with Shea. Follow me.”
When they were close to the ice rink, they heard a loud noise. Mercer heard someone pushing two huge rolling trash carts. Mercer had seen the man earlier that day emptying garbage cans. It was Tom the custodian. His name was stitched on his shirt.
“TAKE COVER!” yelled Mercer. All three dogs scrambled to find a hiding spot.
“Quick,” said Monte, “everyone hide behind the telephone pole.” After a few seconds the rumbling got quieter and Mercer knew that Tom had moved on down the street. “It’s safe now, guys. Let’s go,” said Mercer.
“This is crazy,” said Max. “That man almost caught us, we don’t have skates and I’m so cold I can’t feel my nose.”
“No problem. We can use rental skates. I saw the stand when we were hiding,” explained Mercer. He pawed through the skates and found two pairs for each of them. He tied them up so they were snug and then put on his own.
“These skates stink and they hurt my feet,” Max complained.
It was still too dark to skate so Mercer searched for a light switch. He found one just like the one that he knew how to turn on for Shea.
“Okay, we’ve got lights, skates, and an empty ice rink! LET”S GO, GUYS!”
Marvelous Mercer is a heartwarming story about an extraordinary dog. If you are interested in finding out what happens next to Mercer on his adventures, then you can visit shop.marvelousmercer.com to find the Marvelous Mercer book series, clothing, and stuffed animals. A majority of the proceeds will be allocated to spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) research and to Canine Companions for Independence. The second book in the series, Marvelous Mercer, The Secret Project, launches at FAO Schwarz on March 15th, 2008.
It is amazing the difference that one person or dog can make in someone’s life. To Shea, Mercer is more than a dog; he is her best friend. He opens doors, turns on lights, carries her books, and even ice skates! He is her independence. Several years ago, Shea wrote a letter to encourage people to donate money to help the children and families with SMA. This letter epitomizes her strong spirit and inspirational outlook on life. It reads:
“My name is Shea , I can’t walk. I’m perfectly capable of doing almost anything. When the nurses find that cure, I am not going to take it. That’s why the ‘Walk for Shea’ is really the ‘Walk for SMA.’ There are lots of kids with SMA that need more money for wheelchairs, and want a cure. So please give money to those families, because I’m PERFECT THE WAY I AM. Thank You, Shea.”
To find out more about Canine Companions for Independence and how you can help visit, www.cci.org.