DURYEA — Holy Rosary School eighth-grade student Grace Berlew learned in 2014 about a Pittston girl with disabilities who needed a service dog.
It didn’t take long for Berlew to organize a fundraiser to help Judy Mikelski.
“We saw a notice in the church bulletin at St. John the Evangelist Church,” said Erin Berlew, of West Pittston, Grace’s mother. “My Grace read about Judy and her need for a dog and she felt like there was some way we can help. Grace then talked to Mrs. Candice Lee, the principal at Holy Rosary, and asked if we could do Jeans for Judy Day.”
Erin said students paid a donation to wear jeans for one school day and their families donated money, as well, raising over $1,300.
Gerri Mikelski, Judy’s grandmother and legal guardian, promised the students she and Judy would return to the school when Judy had her service dog.
One year later, Gerri kept her promise. She and Judy, now 11, visited Holy Rosary School Friday with Judy’s new service dog, Cowboy, a 1-year-old Golden Retriever.
Gerri answered questions for the students while Judy demonstrated what commands Cowboy knows, such as shaking hands, sitting, lying down, and jumping onto the school stage.
“She loves him,” said Gerri. “Sometimes she loves him too much and she doesn’t understand that he can get hurt. That kind of comprehension hasn’t gotten to her yet.”
Cowboy joined Judy’s family in July. His purpose is to accompany Judy wherever she goes and be on hand if she has a seizure, as she suffers from epilepsy.
Gerri said some dogs have a sense of smell that allows them to detect when a seizure is about to happen. The dog will then begin barking as a warning or do what it can to get its owner to lie down so he or she doesn’t fall and hit his or her head.
That instance has not happened with Judy, but one day upon coming home from school, Cowboy did sense that Judy had a seizure during the day.
“When she came home from school, she had three seizures at school (in the same day) in short bursts, and he would not leave her alone,” said Gerri. “He kissed her everywhere, and he’s not a lickety-lack dog. He was licking her arms, face, legs and he just sat with her. He knew something was wrong.”
Judy also has as autism, cystic fibrosis and developmental delays, including include speech and motor skills, Duane’s syndrome in her right eye, bilateral club foot and attention deficit disorder.
She currently attends the Graham Academy in Kingston and, though Cowboy cannot go to school with her now, Gerri hopes he will be able to accompany Judy to school next year.
“Right now Judy is too possessive of Cowboy,” she said. “I don’t think it would work because she’d just want to be with Cowboy and not listen to the teacher or the assistant teacher. She’d be too distracted.”
“Fundraising was the biggest obstacle,” Gerri said about the family’s quest for a service dog. “My daughter put a page up (on the Internet) and Facebook and we have family that helped. (St. John the Evangelist) Msgr. Jon Bendik put it in the church bulletin and it made a tremendous difference because people at church told other people and it blossomed.”
Cowboy was born in July 2014 at 4 Paws for Ability, a place that breeds dogs and trains them as service dogs for children worldwide, according to its website.
When he was a few months old, Cowboy was taken to a prison to work with inmates for three months where he learned to cooperate with humans.
After his time in prison, Cowboy spent three months at a college dorm to get accustomed to being with just one person.
A video application was then sent in to 4 Paws for Ability and the Mikelskis were given a chance to interact with Cowboy, both privately and in public, to see if they could work together.
After only a few short months, Judy and Cowboy seem like best friends.
Grace was not able to attend the assembly at Holy Rosary as she is now a freshman at Scranton Preparatory High School, but Erin said her daughter was excited about the presentation nonetheless.
“She was absolutely thrilled,” said Erin. “She was just so happy for Judy and wanted to make sure all the kids at Holy Rosary know that their sacrifices paid off and Judy has her dog now and is part of their family.”
Reach Jimmy Fisher at 570-704-3972 or on Twitter @SD_JimmyFisher