Project Chance - by Rachel Denton (features writer)
Dogs have been dubbed man’s best friend for centuries. Families adopt thousands of dogs every year for numerous reasons: to play with children, to have a companion to love, to help the blind, but one particularly interesting reason that people adopt is to help children with autism. Founded by B.J. Szwedzinski, Project Chance is a program that trains golden retrievers as service dogs to autistic children by simply giving the autistic kids a sense of freedom and confidence.
Memorial Drive Elementary has their very own Project Chance dog, Ozlow. This special dog works with the special education teacher at Memorial Drive, Mrs. Brooke Thomas. Ozlow is actually a therapy dog, which differs from a service dog in that it is trained to provide assistance to a group rather than a specific individual. This school year is the first that Ozlow has been in Mrs. Thomas’s classroom. Mrs. Thomas reports, “[Ozlow] is able to sense the students’ meltdowns before I can tell they are coming and she will go to them and nudge them and try to distract them.” The dog additionally helps the children with verbal communication. She interacts with the nondisabled students as well, and she is loved throughout Memorial Drive.
There is a wide range of factors that those living with autism may be subjected to, but the good news is that service dogs’ assistance ranges over a wide span as well. Service dogs are able to help autistic children with “language and communication, daily living and self-help skills, reduction of challenging behaviors and an increase in replacement behaviors, play and leisure time, socialization and community involvement, coping skills and self-regulation.”
A few Project Chance Dogs (Vega, Ozlow, and Sullivan) were recently at Laura Walker Park for the Autism Family Picnic. The dogs were constantly seen playing with the children, but they didn’t fail to efficiently carry out their jobs. The familes who participated in the event were delighted at the friendly and calm nature of the two service dogs (Vega and Sullivan) and one therapy dog (Ozlow).
Project Chance welcome the help offered from students and families alike. Ware County High’s students are frequent visitors to Florida’s Fernandina Beach; on a weekend that students are down, the following options are available to volunteer for Project Chance: walk the dogs, prepare grants, assist with a fundraiser, or give monetary donations. There may even be a chance for students’ service hours to be considered for Beta Club! The idea will be addressed to Mrs. Thebuad, and students will be informed at a future date. The organization is located at 95512 Arbor Lane; more information can be found at www.projectchance.com.