5-Year-Old Jamey Lay Gets His Service Dog -- and a New Friend -- Thanks to Veterans United Foundation
Christine Lay wandered the aisles at PetSmart, browsing the shelves with her 5-year-old son Jamey. He helped her pick out a few rubber chew toys, but there was no pooch at home waiting for these gifts. The dog they had in mind did not belong to them, was unaffordable, and lived more than 600 miles away.
Then she got the call.
It was a close friend, Adrienne May, who delivered the best news Christine had heard in four months. From her home in El Paso, Texas, Christine had gone to great lengths to raise money for a service dog for Jamey, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Dysfunction Disorder and a seizure disorder. The family was falling severely short until May notified her that all remaining costs were taken care of by her employer, Veterans United Home Loans, and its employee-driven philanthropic arm, Veterans United Foundation.
"I just broke down crying," Christine said. "There were no words to describe it. All I could say was ‘Thank you.'"
It was a $10,000 sigh of relief for Christine and her husband, Andrew, who is currently serving with the Army in Afghanistan. A 50/50 raffle helped them raise about $300 and they put in $200 of their own money, but that wasn't even enough to cover one month of training costs, let alone the grand total of $10,667.
Time for Training
The contribution from Veterans United Foundation will allow Jamey to welcome his new friend next summer, whom he has already named "Rex" because of his love of dinosaurs. The young golden retriever and poodle mix -- commonly known as a goldendoodle -- is currently working with a professional trainer at Fairytale Service Dogs in Golden Valley, Ariz.
Rex will be fully trained by May 2013, when he'll join the family at their new home in Fort Riley, Kansas. In the meantime, Christine knows she has to be ready for anything until Rex arrives. Although she can usually keep a close eye on Jamey and predict most of his health patterns, the severity of his condition can leave him vulnerable in certain situations. His seizures occur most often in the middle of the night.
"I'm to the point where I'm scared that he could have a huge seizure to where he would stop breathing, and I would never know," Christine said.
Rex will be at Jamey's side at all hours and trained to act in the event of an emergency. Once he's ready for service, Rex will be able to recognize the signs of a seizure and alert Mom and Dad.
Ultimately, Rex will be fully equipped with a diverse collection of tools that have been refined to match Jamey's specific needs.
Jamey has yet to develop consistent verbal skills and communicates mostly through signs, many of which Christine doesn't recognize. The family recently purchased an iPad, which Jamey can use to select words and images in order to talk to Christine. Day-to-day conversations are still a challenge.
"He makes up his own signs, so a lot of time I don't know what he wants," Christine said. "The older he gets, the harder it gets. There are so many new things that he's learning at school that I don't know about. He brings it home, he wants to tell me, wants to show me, but he can't. It's very frustrating for him."
But that doesn't prevent him from showing his love for Andrew, who chats with the family via Skype while he's deployed. Although Andrew is not Jamey's biological father, he will be able to adopt him when he returns from Afghanistan. One of the few words Jamey can say is "Dada."
"[Andrew] is still very much a part of the family and we are very lucky through his deployment to be able to talk to each other constantly," Christine said.
Not much else is constant for the Lay family. In his seventh year of Army service, Andrew recently learned he'll relocate to Fort Riley this winter after two years in El Paso.
"Either you make the best of it or you hate it and live a miserable life," Christine said. "As long as Jamey is happy and I'm with my husband, I'm happy."
Autism amplifies some of the challenges of moving. The Lays will have to get him comfortable with a new therapy program and find a way to explain the situation to Jamey in a way that makes sense.
A Guardian Angel
Regardless of where she lives, Christine can stay connected to friends and family through Facebook, where she frequently posts pictures, videos and updates in a special group just for Jamey. The page launched at the start of the fundraising process, and has since become a dynamic digital scrapbook.
One video features Jamey, wearing a pair of Thomas the Tank Engine pajamas, giggling uncontrollably as mom threatens to tickle his tummy by placing a cold cup of juice on his bare skin. Another shows him breaking out some dance moves while a Britney Spears song plays in the background.
Christine is grateful for the opportunity to share these little slices of life with her followers, who love to watch the adventures of Jamey and Rex unfold. The page has more than 220 followers. One of those is Adrienne May, who attended elementary school with Christine.
The two reconnected through Facebook after more than 10 years.
"We just talked a lot about having kids, and all those things: diapers, bottles, babysitting, wanting to tear your hair out, those types of things," May said. "So we've gotten a lot closer over that."
Soon after, Adrienne learned of the upcoming service dog fundraiser and contacted foundation coordinator Megan Sievers. The foundation supports nonprofit organizations that strengthen local communities and honor the sacrifices of those who served our country. It also provides individual donations to current and former military members in need.
Adrienne got to call Christine with the good news.
"It was probably the best thing I've gotten to do in a really long time," May said. "I actually went home and while we were sitting around the table as a family with my kids, I was like, ‘I get to change somebody's life today.'"
** Like Jamey's Facebook page to meet the family and show your support!