Walpole, a small suburban town just outside of Boston, has seen a lot of “firsts.” These firsts included a student documentary about three classmates with cystic fibrosis that premiered at our very own film festival, decked out with a real red carpet; a partnership between the school district, the police department, and a service dog organization called Golden Opportunities for Independence (GOFI); and one student with cystic fibrosis receiving an unforgettable gift for Christmas: a service dog named Rosie. Many of these moments have demonstrated how other school communities can best accommodate the emotional needs of all of their students and the unique health needs for students living with CF.
I am a high school nurse responsible for 1,200 students, three of whom have cystic fibrosis. Over the last three years I have had the challenge of planning for and implementing a safety plan for these students. I created a consent form for sharing information specific to CF students, a CF fact sheet for staff, and -- most importantly -- my action plan template. The action plans I set up for each of the students have been a tremendous help for them and the staff. Each student with CF knows the rules when using common areas, and the teachers have copies of the plans so they can make sure everyone is where they should be. I have been contacted from people all over the world who are interested in my plans.
But the latest development at Walpole has been the partnership among the school district, Walpole Police Department, and GOFI. I was already a volunteer with this organization that breeds and trains service dogs. Around that time, some of the service dogs came into the high school to help the students relieve stress during final exams. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that we sought out something more permanent. We then got the idea that our school resource officer should get a “partner.”
The runt of the litter may have been small in size but made up for that in personality. She had a heart murmur at birth and could not be a single-person service dog. So, we decided to have her be the facility dog for Walpole Public Schools. We appropriately named her Rebel, the name of the Walpole High School mascot. And now, this little Rebel is heart murmur-free! She lives with me full-time and travels from school to school to spend time with the school resource officer during the day, offering comfort and support to the students.
While Rebel was visiting the high school, one of the students with CF become very fond of her. Rebel provided a lot of comfort and support for Sarah, who had a challenging year. Sarah had been trying to convince her parents for years that a dog would be a wonderful addition to the family. After looking into what a service dog could potentially do for Sarah, her father reached out to me. Luckily, a month earlier, a litter was born, so we were able to find the perfect match for Sarah -- a new puppy named Rosie.
Sarah is involved with every aspect of training her puppy. Working with GOFI, Sarah is helping train Rosie for specific tasks that meet her needs, both medically and emotionally.
Sarah's dog is being trained to alert her if her breathing becomes labored during sleep and if her oxygen levels decrease, and she can retrieve medications when needed. The possibilities are limitless for how Sarah and Rosie will grow together.
Rosie has already become a very good learner and Sarah has proven to be an excellent teacher! I know that Sarah and Rosie will have some adventures.
This is how my commitment to CF and my passion for service dogs collided in a small town of firsts. Throughout this collaboration, I have realized the unprecedented power of a community committed to putting every student first. There is also something to be said for a school system and a community's willingness to explore outside the box to achieve excellence. As my three students with CF get older and are getting ready to graduate high school, I will miss them. I can only hope I have played a small part in their bright futures. For any school district interested in any of these successful programs, please reach out to me.