Update: Unfortunately, Baker has since passed away. Erica now has a new service dog. Read all about them here!
Moving Forward Together
Twelve years ago I met my best friend, Baker, a beautiful golden retriever who would give me independence in ways that were unimaginable to me at that time. I was 13, shy, and oblivious to what kind of amazing life we would have together. Bumps while navigating through teenage years are inevitable and facing the uncertainty of high school is daunting, but it’s a little more bearable when there’s a furry friend by your side. Because of Baker, the transition to college life was almost seamless. He was my best friend, my confidante. He worked his magic in the dorms and the classrooms with his golden smile, attracting people to us, making it easy to make friends. Baker developed in me a level of confidence I never expected to achieve and this is what allowed me to live a fuller life.
After I lost my beloved boy to cancer, I was deeply depressed. It took me many months to accept that I had to go on without him and I struggled to regain some sense of normal. Though I wasn’t sure if I would ever be ready, thoughts of another dog started to cross my mind frequently. Part of me hoped that another dog could help me heal from my tremendous loss and help me move on with my life.
I’ve learned if you always wait until you’re absolutely ready to do something, you’ll be stuck in place, never moving forward. So, I summoned up the courage to apply for another service dog before I was entirely sure I was ready to open my heart again. I expected a lengthy process and was shocked to learn I was matched so quickly. I received an email with a couple of pictures and a few words about a petite black lab named Amberley. By the time I packed my bags for training, my new girl already had a small piece of my heart, though we had never met.
All my doubts, fears, and insecurities vanished the very moment I met Amberley.
Waking up to kisses and a wet nose always starts my day off right. Dropping practically everything I put my hands on, especially when it lands out of reach, is no longer as frustrating as it once was. Though the multitude of tasks that Amberley performs for me on a daily basis are extremely helpful, they only scratch the surface of what makes her so special to me. Any lingering doubt that there would be enough room in my heart for Amberley was laid to rest the day I met her. The bond that formed so quickly between us grows stronger every day. She’s securely nestled in my heart, right next to Baker, and I am no longer stuck in place. I am moving forward, no longer alone.
Editor’s Note: Erica is a former CDK scholarship recipient and was elected to the CDK Board of Directors in 2016Moving Forward Together
By Erica Way
Erica Way is a typical all American teenager, with a pretty bedroom full of stuffed animals, equestrian ribbons, and a framed picture of her and her boyfriend from last year’s sophomore dance. And there’s one other thing, her wheelchair.
“People used to stare at it” she says. “But now they stare at Baker.”
Baker is a fluffy muffin of love who greets you at the door of the Way home with all the enthusiasm of a Golden Retriever. Just when you think the kisses will never stop, he turns and trots over confidently to the love of his life. There he rests his handsome head on Erica’s knee and listens as she tells the story of how this one very special dog has brought so much joy to so many.
Erica’s mother learned of CDK the way that many do, on a public service announcement played by a local radio station. She thought of her animal loving daughter’s up-coming birthday, and could think of no better way to celebrate than a tour of the CDK facility. But during the visit, she couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps CDK might offer something else for her daughter. Like all who love a differently abled child, Erica’s parents had spent many hours pondering the hard questions. What will happen as Erica gets older? How do we balance her desire for an independent young adulthood with the risks? And how will we mange our fears of her being somewhere all alone?
Erica herself was not so sure about CDK. Not that she didn’t love dogs, but her mind had been set on a different kind of animal–she was already planning for the day she could move to Florida to study marine biology. But she went forward with the application process and finally the day of her interview came. The trainers brought out dog after dog to meet her and all were wonderful, loving souls — some with so much love that they nearly knocked her petite frame over. Exhausted, Erica and her mother were ready to head home when the trainer said “If you have time … there is just one more … one more, kind of special dog I’d like you to meet.”
And out came Baker. Still a puppy at heart, but so gentle and calm that he immediately seemed to have been born by her side. Erica was both smitten and surprised at the intensity of her feelings since she didn’t even really think she WANTED a dog. Then the days and weeks of waiting began. Of course, Erica didn’t know if Baker would make it or not, or if Baker would be matched to someone else. But finally, the miraculous phone call came and after all that it had happened. Baker and Erica would begin training for a life together.
All of that was only two years ago, yet in some ways it seems to Erica and her mother to be just about forever. Baker is so a part of their family that it is hard to remember a time that he didn’t board the school bus with her every day. His picture even appears in her yearbook, alphabetized like all the other students! Baker loves all the people in Erica’s life – her handsome boyfriend, her loving parents, her two devoted brothers – and they all love him. But there is only one true love for Baker and that is Erica.
What does Baker do? Well, in addition to all the practical tasks Baker was trained for (pulling open a door, turning off the bedroom lights at night and most especially, picking up the many dropped items Erica manages to lose her grip on throughout the day) he enhances her independence, just by being at her side. Teachers no longer feel they need to subject Erica to the “buddy system” if she leaves the classroom on an errand. Her parents allow her the freedom to run errands on her own at the local neighborhood shopping plaza, secure in the fact that Erica and Baker are capable of watching out for each other. In a word: Baker is THERE. Always by her side, whether it’s sleeping in her bed at night, riding the bus to school in the morning and snoozing below her desk all day, visiting her friends with her after school, or going to the mall. When she goes zooming down her quiet neighborhood streets, her mom worries just a tiny bit less about her tipping over into a pothole or taking it too fast in front of a moving car. When she is home in the evening she is never, ever alone because there is always a furry face beside her. Sure, he would no more menace a stranger then sprout wings and fly, but just having him next to her gives her family peace of mind.
Erica’s plans for her future still include studying marine biology in Florida, but honestly, adds her mom, “who knows where she will end up.” There is only one thing that is certain. Wherever it is that Erica goes, she will have a devoted — and very fuzzy — face by her side.
By Mia Maccolin
Erica graduated High School in June of 2009, with Baker proudly at her side. They begin college in the fall and are ready for the new adventures that they will meet together.