Paws for a Cause
Like all pep rallies, Hernando High School’s autism awareness pep rally was designed to pump people up. There was plenty of blue (the color for autism awareness), music, and dancing. But there was also a serious side, meant to promote acceptance for people with autism. There were student presentations, guest speakers, and a metaphor-filled obstacle course (which included popping balloons to represent bursting a bully’s bubble).
The highlight of the event occurred when students announced they would provide financial support for nine-year-old Korban Essary to receive a service dog, making a real lifelong impact for Korban and his family.
When Korban arrived, he was met with a large welcome sign — a puzzle piece (the signature symbol for autism awareness) constructed out of plywood and displaying his name. To his mom and dad it was art. They asked to take it home. “It was so big, we could barely close the back of the van!” laughed Melissa, Korban’s mom. “Korban will look at it every day. What they did for him, and what they’re doing for him with the service dog, it has left a very special imprint on our family.”
“A student [Reagan Zizmann] spoke about why it’s important to talk about autism,” Melissa reflected. “She talked about the future — that you might work with someone who has autism, or one day you might even have a child with autism. That really made an impression on us. Most adults don’t have a concept like that. These students are our future, and I feel good about that.”
HOW IT ALL GOT STARTED
For students at Hernando High School in Mississippi, autism was a familiar topic. The school’s Interact Club has worked with Autism Awareness Month and the “Light Up Blue” campaign for a couple of years. For their Impact Project, Chick-fil-A Leader Academy students partnered with the Interact Club to “plus up” the effort, with a focus on making a lasting and personal impact in their community.
“Students embraced the idea of acceptance as their core mission,” said Hernando High School teacher and facilitator Holly Neel of her Chick-fil-A Leader Academy group. “For them, it’s not just about awareness, it’s about appreciating the differences. This Impact Project gave them a platform to express what that means to them.”
Beyond the pep rally, there were several other elements to the Impact Project, including a 5k color run (in partnership with the Interact Club), volunteering, and fundraising for Arc of Northwest Mississippi and Retrieving Freedom, the organization that will provide a service dog to Korban and his family.
“After meeting with Retrieving Freedom and understanding what service dogs can do for children with autism, it became really important to us that we find a family to help,” said Reaghan Howdeshell. “It made it about real people, not just about a cause.”
THE GIFT OF COMPANIONSHIP
When Melissa and Brad Essary got the news that they would be assisted in receiving a service dog, it came at a particularly challenging time for the family. “It was like music to our ears. It lifted us up,” said Melissa.
By the time Korban was three, he was officially diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Since then, it has been a roller coaster of emotions and new trials for the family. Korban’s sensory and anxiety issues are tremendous challenges and are heartbreaking for his parents — the family regularly manages his separation anxiety, tantrums, and picking of the skin. In addition, Korban suffers from hypogammaglobulinemia, an immune disorder that requires hospital visits for infusions. These appointments are extremely stressful and often require restraint and soothing from several members of the hospital staff.
“Having a service dog to comfort Korban, love him without judgment, and to be a watchful, trained set of eyes will be a huge blessing for our family,” said Brad
Retrieving Freedom’s dogs are specially trained for each individual. For Korban, this means his service dog will be trained to be a source of calm, which is a great help for his anxiety and sensory issues. In addition, for children with autism, the dogs are often tethered to their human in public settings. If Korban were to run away unexpectedly, as he has been known to do, the dog is trained to sit down, which stops the run. “It might sound insignificant, but having the peace of mind that he won’t dart away is a huge relief,” said Melissa.
“The students wanted acceptance, for people with autism to be seen for their strengths, not their weaknesses,” said Brad. “I think they’ve accomplished that. They sure have with our family.”