VetDogs Remove Boundaries and Change Lives

Imagine a world where you’re struggling with a combination of impaired vision, limited mobility and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That’s the reality for many of our veterans. But there is hope, and it comes with four legs – a VetDog.
Dec 21, 2020 9:00 AM ET

For Joe Worley, a U.S. Navy veteran and a father of three, simply getting up off the floor and retrieving his shoe used to be a daily struggle. He lost his left leg and severely injured his right leg in 2004 after stepping on an IED bomb in Iraq while serving his country as a corpsman assigned to a U.S. Marine infantry unit.

Four years later, Worley – who lives in Atlanta, GA – found out about America’s VetDogs. His life changed forever when ‘Benjamin,’ a golden retriever service dog, became a part of his family. In 2017, ‘Galaxie’ joined his family when Benjamin could no longer provide physical support due to aging. Today, Galaxie helps Worley stand up, retrieve items and walk. He can even open handicap doors and pull Worley in his wheelchair.

“I had no idea what I was missing until I met Benjamin and Galaxie,” said Worley. “I’m 6’3” with a metal leg, so I’m often in the spotlight – but it’s completely different when I have Galaxie by my side since he draws the attention, which means that others don’t just see my disability anymore. He helps me connect with those who have different experiences and find some common ground.”

Service dogs enable veterans to live with pride and self-reliance

The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind was founded in 1946 to provide guide dogs to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. In 2003, the Foundation expanded its operations by forming a sister organization, America’s VetDogs, to provide service dogs to veterans and first responders. The service dog program of America’s VetDogs provides enhanced mobility and renewed independence to U.S. veterans, active-duty service members and first responders with disabilities. Service dogs assist with daily activities and enable veterans to live with pride and self-reliance.

John Dellasala is a U.S. Marine veteran who now serves as an IT capability lead at Kimberly-Clark in Roswell, GA. He is passionate about veteran-related issues and helping those with disabilities – and he loves dogs (he owns three). He serves as the Roswell office chair of the SALUTE employee resource group (ERG) for veterans along with its Capabilities First ERG for those with disabilities. In addition, he has volunteered with the Guide Dog Foundation and America’s VetDogs for five years as a puppy raiser, group leader, and now as an area coordinator.

This past July, Kimberly-Clark announced a goal to advance the well-being of 1 billion people in underserved communities around the world by 2030. Reaching such an ambitious goal sometimes happens one person at a time, so earlier this year, Kimberly-Clark’s employees and its SALUTE ERG along with its Capabilities First ERG raised $6,000 for America’s VetDogs. This means they can sponsor and name a puppy. 

Kimberly-Clark welcomes ‘Kimberly’ to Atlanta

Kimberly-Clark chose to sponsor a female poodle and name her ‘Kimberly.’ She arrived in Atlanta in early December, and she will live with Dellasala for roughly 14-18 months. During this time, Dellasala and his family will socialize her and teach her basic obedience, and she will join the Kimberly-Clark Roswell community whenever the office reopens so she has experience interacting with others in a work environment. 

“The partnership that we have with Kimberly-Clark employees is special,” said Jaime McGrade, Associate Director of Development at the Guide Dog Foundation & America's VetDogs. “We’re always looking for dedicated puppy raisers, and John is an amazing ambassador for our program. He advocates for us and has provided numerous puppies with a stable, structured and loving environment so they can learn quickly and thrive.”

VetDogs trains and places service dogs for those with physical disabilities, guide dogs for individuals who are blind or have low vision, service dogs to help mitigate the effects of PTSD, and facility dogs as part of the rehabilitation process in military and VA hospitals. It costs over $50,000 to breed, raise, train, and place one assistance dog, but all of VetDogs’ services are provided at no charge to the veteran. Funding comes from individuals, corporations, foundations, businesses and community organizations.

After 18 months with Dellasala and his family, Kimberly will return to the Guide Dog Foundation campus in Smithtown, NY to work with a certified ‘Guide Dog Mobility Instructor’ and further her training skills so she can support someone with a visual impairment. Trainers will review her skills and try to find the best match for her.

Worley said that Kimberly will completely change someone’s life – just like Benjamin and Galaxie have done for him.

“People don’t realize how hard it is to try and fit into society after serving,” he said. “It’s a tough balance to determine who you want to be vs. who you are since many of us go from being the person that everyone goes to for help to needing help from others.”

Worley now works for America’s VetDogs as a veterans services liaison and partners with numerous veterans service organizations to ensure they’re aware of the nonprofit’s support services.

VetDogs remind veterans they are never alone

“Kimberly-Clark’s essential products make lives better for people around the globe, and VetDogs serve as an essential source of support for our veterans,” said Dellasala. “It’s an incredible feeling to know that – in some small way – we can help care for these heroes who have sacrificed so much to protect us.”

Last year, Dellasala raised Mollie Jane, who was recently placed with a visually-impaired handler. Kimberly-Clark employees have already raised the funds to sponsor their next puppy, ‘Clark,’ and McGrade said that the company’s employees are spreading hope one canine at a time.  

“Service dogs allow veterans to live without boundaries, and it’s truly incredible to see someone’s entire outlook on life change because these dogs give them the confidence to tackle whatever challenges they may face…and remind them that they are never alone,” said McGrade.

For over thirty years, Kimberly-Clark’s employee resource groups (ERGs) have brought together different perspectives and experiences. These groups, with chapters around the world, include the African-American Employee Network (AAEN), Capabilities First, Focus Asia (FA), Family Caregivers Network (FCN), Latin American Network for Diversity (LAND), New Employee Opportunity Network (NEON), Parent’s Interactive Network (PIN), People Respecting Individual Differences Everywhere (PRIDE), SALUTE and the Women’s Inclusion Network (WIN).