Meredith and Sami: Stepping Out
Like most Post-Millennials, Meredith Butenhoff’s formative years have been shaped by technology. You can’t really “unwire” today’s Gen Z’ers from smartphones, YouTube, Alexa or Snap Chat. It’s as much a part of their world as MTV was for their Gen X parents.
Despite the technology that encompasses almost every area of her life, the principal support for Meredith’s disability doesn’t need a battery or a Wi-Fi connection. Sami, her mobility dog and very best friend, is a low-tech lifesaver who is always by her side.
Meredith, now 19, was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), when she was 11 years old. EDS is a genetic disorder that affects connective tissues that support organs, blood vessel walls, skin and bones. The condition can cause mild symptoms, like loose joints and bruising or have life-threatening complications.
For Meredith, EDS causes joint pain and dizziness. She is no longer able to participate in swimming and basketball, activities she enjoyed before her diagnosis.
While Meredith may not be able to engage in the sports she loved as a child, she lives independently with Sami, on the beautiful campus of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, where she is a sophomore.
Walking the tree-lined campus, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is easy with Sami by her side for help with balance and mobility. He attends classes, participates with Meredith in her Student Ambassador Program, and joins Meredith and her friends for pizza on a Friday night.
The tall black lab with the easy-going personality can’t cure EDS, but he minimizes its effects, pushing it into the background so that her life is about her dreams and goals, not a disability.
It wasn’t always that way.
Before Sami’s arrival, Meredith would sometimes be unable to walk and needed a wheelchair. After Sami, Meredith hasn’t spent any time in a wheelchair: he’s given her the gift of mobility and independence.
An Exceptional Education
Meredith’s mom, Tracy Butenhoff says, “We never even considered that a service dog could make such a difference in Meredith’s life. We were at a conference for EDS and Meredith heard an inspirational speech about the amazing things a service dog could do for someone with that condition.”
The inspirational speaker was Kristin Hartness, the Executive Director of Canines for Disabled Kids. Intrigued, Tracy and Meredith talked to Kristin after the presentation.
“Kristin was instrumental in educating us about everything service dogs,” says Tracy. “ I had no idea how to go about it. How to train one, find one, get one ADI certified…I really knew nothing about the process.”
“Kristin helped me get from ground zero to having an excellent understanding of who to talk with, what questions to ask, and how to work with Meredith’s school. Canines for Disabled Kids also provided us with a scholarship to help minimize the cost of acquiring a service dog.”
Tracy says, “Kristin and Canines for Disabled Kids, gave us the confidence and insights we needed to move forward getting a life changing partner for Meredith.”
Finding the right life changing partner for Meredith took longer than most service dog matches. Meredith needed a dog who was tall enough for the mobility, and Sami took two years to find.
Sami was definitely worth the wait. Meredith and her family fell in love with him immediately.
“Our biggest challenge,” Tracy confides, “was giving Meredith and Sami the space to bond because he was the sweetest boy ever. We are lucky that he is a “Velcro” dog and we can give him lots of attention while he isn’t working and it doesn’t affect his attachment to Meredith and him wanting to always be with her.”
Sami helps Meredith stay upright, especially when she is dizzy and having joint pain. His presence enables her to stay mobile and out of a wheelchair. Sami’s presence comforts Meredith for medical procedures and he is trained to go for help if she needs it. Sami can also retrieve things Meredith has dropped on the floor, keeping here from getting dizzy bending down.
Two Way Street
While Sami does a lot for Meredith, Tracy is quick to point out that Meredith does a lot for Sami.
“It’s a two way street when you have a service dog,” Tracy explains. “Meredith schedules her class times around the need to give him a break to exercise and go outside. She gets up early to walk him before class, rain or shine, and makes sure that his needs are always met.”
“In fact,” Tracy says, “Meredith is so protective of Sami that she will skip going to a concert with friends if I can’t watch Sami for her. She doesn’t want him to be in a venue with dirty floors or loud music that might hurt his ears. Sami comes first for Meredith.”
Like so many service dog teams, Meredith and Sami have a special bond that only someone who has a service dog can fully understand.
Sami went to Meredith’s senior prom and goes on her dates too. He’s popular with all the girls in her residence hall and gives tours at Furman when Meredith is acting as an ambassador.
There’s no telling what they will do next as Meredith focuses on her studies and then life after college. No matter where her career path takes her, Sami will be a constant in her life, making sure she is able to confidently step into her future.
~ Janis Gioia special education teacher who writes for organizations supporting children and adults with disabilities and mental health challenges. Jan shares articles and resources to help children with anxiety, depression and autism spectrum disorders on her website www.comfortinganxiouschildren.com.