Pam Kelly and her dog, Sandy, were inseparable. The onetime Army sergeant and her Labrador-beagle mix spent 14 years together. Sandy died a few years ago, and Kelly still carries the dog’s leash tied to the footrest of her wheelchair.
“It’s a reminder that Sandy will always be a part of me; I can’t forget her,” Kelly, 51, said. Now, she is looking for a new dog to improve her life in a way far beyond what Sandy could do.
Sgt. Pam Kelly served as a medic in the Army 17 years until she was injured in a training accident that crushed her spine, and severely injured her head and shoulders. She is a quadriplegic and has some mobility in her left arm.
Kelly has been searching for a multi-task service dog for years. The cost is expected to be around $10,000 and on Friday night at a packed SeaBreeze Recreation Center, more than 220 Villagers turned out to help. The event was called “Paws for a Hero” and featured karaoke singers, dancing and special fund-raising events.
A total of $4,086 was raised.
“This is heart-warming and wonderful to see so many people come out to support me,” Kelly said. “They’re here to help me but I’d like to think they are here for all veterans.”
Marie Bogdonoff heads the group Villagers for Veterans and helped organize the event.
“I’m so happy that so many people came out for Pam,” Bogdonoff said. “She has done so much for us and her country, it’s the least we can do.”
Kelly knows a service dog will help her emotionally as well as physically.
“It’s hard for me to pick up things, move around and this kind of dog would make a big difference in my life,” said Kelly, who is single and lives near Clearwater. “It would also help me in an emotional way; helping me deal with stress and having a companion with me I can depend on.”
Leslie Nicole Smith understands those feelings. She is legally blind and lost her left leg as a result of military service in Bosnia. She has a service dog named Isaac, who has been with her for about six years.
“Getting Isaac was a life-changing experience for me,” said Smith, who was a guest speaker at the event on Friday. “He enabled me to get my life back.”
She said with a service dog, “you don’t feel so afraid and insecure. And the dog gives you a level of freedom you didn’t have before. He gives you a sense of empowerment.”
“He reinforces an attitude that you’re not alone and he will always be there,” Smith added. “He’s like a teammate; when you have a rough day, he helps you get through it. When I look at his big ears, his eyes and I pet him, I feel everything will be OK.
“Isaac is calming and reassuring. I know that this dog loves me in an unconditional way, and it gives me courage. I truly believe it will be the same way for Pam.”
The biggest challenge may be bonding with the dog. Kelly has been searching and there is a long waiting list for such service dogs, she said. Smith said she found Isaac and it only took about a week for her and the dog to bond. “It was just a natural thing,” she said.
Smith added that she feels “protected” by the dog, when she’s out shopping, or in unfamiliar public places. “He makes me feel safe,” she said.
Smith does not like the terms, “guide dog” or “seeing-eye dog.”
“I’m legally blind and I don’t think those terms apply in this day and age,” she said. “A service dog encompasses so much more. He is part of my day to day life. I just hope Pam will get a service dog as soon as possible.”
“Paws for a Hero” turned into an entertaining night with local karaoke singers taking turns on stage.
“Seeing all these people here is fabulous and each and everyone of us is saying thank-you to Pam,” said John “Jaybird” Corcoran, who with his wife, Trish, supplied the backing music.
The Corcorans son, Pat, was severely wounded while serving in Afghanistan and is confined to a wheelchair. “We understand the sacrifice and how hard it is; and that’s why we’re here for Pam,” Trish said.
Doreen Buresh lives in The Villages and performed “Tears In Heaven” on the SeaBreeze stage. “When you see veterans getting injured, it just tears your heart out,” she said.
Willie Lake, another Villager, belted out, “That Old Time Rock and Roll” on stage.
“I’m a veteran,” Lake said after the song. “I had to be here.”
Rob Bogdonoff, Marie’s husband, was a sight to behold dressed in an Elvis jumpsuit with sunglasses to boot.
“I like doing Elvis, but it’s better to help Pam,” said the man who would be king. “It’s an honor.”
Those wanting to help Pam Kelly can contact email@example.com