When Suzy Brunk walks into Broadmor Elementary School, she brings a little bit of hope with her each day, as she holds onto the leash of her new golden retriever Irish.
As a second-grader, Suzy is happy and playful in spite of many challenges in her young life, including diagnoses of autism and epilepsy. She is non-verbal, has learning challenges, and experiences episodes of anxiety. However, Suzy’s family and school community have glimpsed how the extraordinary new partnership is already changing the life of a special girl and opening hearts and minds all around her.
Mobilizing a community is nothing new for the Brunks, who started the Suzy Foundation in 2011. Their nonprofit assists families with special needs children by funding equipment and devices that may not be covered by insurance. Many local families have been helped so far in obtaining items such as weighted blankets, iPads, DEMO suits and other devices.
But, this time, the cause was even closer to home.
Childhood experiences that may be taken for granted by a typical family are challenges for the Brunks. Doctor visits and simple outings are difficult due to Suzy’s anxiety and sensory issues, such as trouble with noise and crowds. The Brunks knew they needed help and that a service dog might be able to open critical doors for Suzy, including easing anxiety, facilitating social interactions and enabling greater focus at school.
The family spent nine months raising the money they needed to get Irish from Arizona Goldens, an organization dedicated to training and providing highly trained service dogs. Friends, family, coworkers, community members and members of the Scottsdale Fire Department generously donated and took part in fundraisers, including a bike tour, garage sale, beanbag tournament and a “Dri Tri” at Orange Theory Tempe. All in all, the family raised $22,000 – just enough to purchase Irish.
“The process of training Irish or any service dog is very intense and for good reason,” said Brian Daugherty of AZ Goldens. “In addition to helping to physically navigate the world, dogs like Irish can alert adults to impending seizures in their owners.”
Irish’s training started as a puppy, with over 2,000 hours before a client was chosen. Once Suzy was identified as Irish’s match, Daugherty said there were hundreds more hours involved in ensuring they would be an optimal pair.
“The ability to see kids speak for the first time, to be able to give parents the ability to sleep through the night, to help kids learn to lead independent lives – that is the fulfilling part of this type of work,” Daugherty said. “However, none of that would be possible without the open-mindedness of the school community. The staff at Broadmor was very helpful, and they were really enthusiastic and open to using the dog appropriately.”
Irish’s first day in the classroom at Broadmor with Suzy was in early January. So far, Suzy has shown remarkable improvement with stress level and ability to focus.
“The biggest change I have seen in Suzy is her level of anxiety – it has decreased immensely. She used to be stressed about eating, doing her work, and touch, but now with Irish by her side, she feels a level of comfort,” Diana McKeeaid, a teacher at Broadmor, said. “For the first three days, Irish’s trainer from AZ Goldens was here to help us. Irish had to get comfortable with us and his new surroundings. It took about two to three weeks for the entire school community to adjust. I am very impressed with the students and staff at Broadmor for the manner in which they have embraced Irish as a part of the Broadmor learning community.”
“We cannot thank the Tempe Elementary School District enough for being so open to helping us incorporate Irish into Suzy’s life,” said Suzy’s mom, Jaime Arredondo-Brunk.
Everyone at Broadmor and Tempe Elementary School District is excited to see what the future holds for Suzy with Irish by her side.