Vail Valley Scenery column: Events raise funds for Canine Companions for Independence | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley Scenery column: Events raise funds for Canine Companions for Independence

Carolyn Pope
Vail Valley Scenery

The local chapter of Canine Companions for Independence had a double treat last week. First, it was the designated recipient of the proceeds from the annual Evans-Chaffee Kickball Tournament, which wrote the organization a check for $21,000, and then the annual gala held at The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch raised another $260,000.

Canine Companions for Independence began in 1975 with a million-dollar donation from Charles Schultz, the creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip. Since the group's inception in Vail, more than $1,500,000 has been raised.

"We started in 2001 (in Eagle County) with an event at TimberHearth in Cordillera with 75 people," said Kay Michelson, secretary for Canine Companions for Independence's local chapter. Anne Roberts spearheaded the organization in Vail, brought on Joan and Bob Solon and then wrangled Michelson into the group. "This year, we had over 220 people. We also have a junior chapter, with 10 members representing all the local high schools."

The junior chapter here is the first in the nation. It was an emotional video the junior members submitted to Evans-Chaffee that sealed the deal for the kickball tournament. Local youth in the chapter include past president Seth Molina, president Finn Connolly, vice president Tali Molina, secretary Payton Connolly, community outreach coordinator Malia Hollander, Taleigh and Jordan Davis, Devin and Tatum Huffman, Hana and Grace Samuelson, Harry Jaffe and Kingston Lindner.

"I joined CCI-Vail Junior Chapter because I respect their mission in being able to help all people with any type of disability forge a relationship with such an amazing, trustworthy, helpful, kind, talented and loving dog that can help them to be the kind of person they always dreamed of being," Payton Connolly said.

At the gala, Steve Janicek, general manager of The Ritz Carlton, along with Roberts and Michelson, greeted guests at the door, and each attendee had the chance to admire the exquisite dog beds created by local designers, which were being auctioned off. The seven beds ranged from $250 to $1,500 and were created by Greenauer Design Group, Tessa Hyatt, Dallas Lyon, Linen Kist, Slifer Design Group, Barbara Mullen and Laureen Hopkins.

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Two keynote speakers engaged the audience at the gala: Carole O'Shea, the supervisor of the Victims' Service Unit at the Aurora Police Department, and Capt. Michael Caspers, a Fort Carson soldier who lost his right leg below the knee after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in August 2011. He is paired with CCI dog Vincent.

"Our CCI dog bridges pain and opens communication," O'Shea said.

Victims' Service Unit's dog, Fallina, a lab-golden retriever mix, is considered a "facility dog" and is present at most every case which involves a victim, whether it be a victim of sexual assault, domestic violence or, right now, she is present during an investigation in a murder.

Recently, Fallina served in a unique capacity: While visiting Colorado for a softball tournament from California, a girls' softball team lost their long-time coach on the field when he had a heart attack.

"Fallina sat in the middle of the girls' team," O'Shea said. "She licked away their tears; they snuggled her and loved on her. You can see all the love that she brings into tough situations. She is controlled and intuitive."

Raising puppies in the Canine Companions for Independence world doesn't come inexpensively, usually costing approximately $50,000 for each dog. Puppy raisers take the dogs for 14 to 18 months, and then the dogs go to one of six national centers, which can take as long as two years.

The graduate (Canine Companions for Independence's term for the human part of the couple) goes to the center and trains with the selected dog for two weeks. Finally, the adult, veteran or child with a disability goes home with his or her Canine Companion for a life of Independence.

The organization pays for the graduate's expenses for traveling and lodging during the training process. If the dog dies, it will be replaced for the life of the graduate.

"We receive no government help," Michelson said. "All our funds come from fundraising and grants. We have a noble cause that sells itself. We as volunteers need a positive vision to achieve our goals. With Canine Companions for Independence, we have that enduring, excellent and ethical goal."

Canine Companions for Independence can certainly use your help in its mission. They are currently looking for loving families to raise a puppy, and of course, donations are always helpful. Several local people are need of a Canine Companions for Independence dog, too, though one youth, Seth Molina, raised a puppy for his Bar Mitzvah project. Currently, there are 54 active graduate teams in Colorado and 75 puppies being raised.

Anyone wishing to be a puppy raiser, or to apply for a Canine Companions dog, can go to cci.org.

Carolyn Pope has covered community service events and nonprofit activities since 2001 and co-authored "The Women of Vail." She can be reached at 970-390-9913.