This success story is written by one of our volunteers, Mike Penketh, who lost both hands in an attempt to break the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. When his race car rolled, one hand was sheared off and the other so badly damaged that it needed to be removed. He now uses two myoelectric hands and still flies aerobatic airplanes from the Nut Tree Airport. His story tells of one of our unanticipated benefits of A Touch of Understanding which took place this summer at our Volunteer Appreciation Picnic.

About two years after I got involved with ATOU as a speaker, I started bringing a “special assistant” with me to all ATOU functions.  This “special assistant” is a specialist at crowd control whether it be a class of third graders or a group of parents.  I sometimes refer to this “special assistant” as a “teen-age blond” but in reality she is a two-year old, sixty pound, golden Retriever who, when not on the agility course, catching a Frisbee or retrieving rocks from the bottom of the pool, accompanies me twenty-four hours a day as a service dog.

Animals have a means of communication with children that is unbelievable. In a matter of seconds, Magy is in total control of an entire class as she rolls on her back for a tummy rub.  Kids mob towards her; recess and lunch bells, and even teachers, are seldom heard.

This past August at our annual ATOU Picnic, we met Courtney, who is the daughter of ATOU President, Brenda Osiow.  As I watched Courtney and her father play Frisbee, Magy sat patiently by my side.  I noticed Courtney had a physical impairment with the motor functions of her right side. She was the victim of hemiplegia at birth.  This did not seem to slow Courtney a bit; a pretty, enthusiastic little girl who appeared to enjoy life to the fullest.

Magy intently watched this game of Frisbee.  She sees things differently than her two-legged friends.  First, Frisbees are the greatest things in the world.  Secondly, Magy sees all kids as toys; toys whose sole function are to play with her!  A kid with a Frisbee!  What more could Magy want?

Magy was all smiles as I motioned Courtney over to meet her.  Courtney seemed a little shy but that was soon to disappear.  “Throw it, Courtney,” and Magy was off in a flash.  In the dust, a special smile came upon Courtney’s’ face; a smile that Magy created.  I proceeded to explain and demonstrate some basic commands: stay, sit, down, shake, behind, hold, heel, side and give.  I also explained that my best friend, Magy, was considered a service animal, and she could legally accompany me wherever I went.

Courtney and Magy became an instant team as she proudly and confidently demonstrated her newly acquired skills as a dog handler to her Mom.  Her confidence was becoming more apparent by the minute.  I had never met Courtney before that day, but the smile on her face was something that had to be seen.

Later discussions with Brenda and ATOU Executive Director, Leslie DeDora, revealed that Courtney at times had a balance problem which caused me to suggest the possibility of a service dog.  After watching the confidence, fun and pleasure created by Magy, we were all in agreement to pursue a service dog for Courtney.

My next step was to put Brenda and Courtney in contact with our good friend Nancy Sawhney.  Nancy is an ATOU volunteer and also serves on the Board of Directors for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).  A very informal question/answer session resulted in a formal application requesting a “Skilled Companion Dog” for Courtney.  It may be a while, but Courtney has a new best friend in her future.

Mike’s story is one of many regarding the additional rewards A Touch of Understanding offers as individuals with disabilities are able to reach out to others and share their experiences, both challenges and successes.