Article Series

Freedom Service Dogs Looks Back on 25 Years and Forward With Your Help

The Staff at Freedom Service Dog s. Learn more about this organization at www.freedomservicedogs.org.

Freedom Service Dogs (FSD): Tales of the Early Years

FSD was founded by Mike Roche, a paramedic who sustained injuries in an ambulance accident, putting him in a wheelchair for life. P.J. was his care provider (and later his wife), who brought her bright and curious dog to work each day. After some focused training, they were so impressed by what the dog could do to help Mike in his daily activities, they started to think about how other individuals could be helped, and FSD was born.

Board Member, Kathleen Fieselman, arrived on the scene in 2000 when she applied for a service dog. At that time, a client’s average wait was two years, and her first service dog, Blu, was placed with her in 2002. “Blu was so mellow and such a great service dog, I could take him anywhere—and I did.” Fieselman was fortunate to have a vehicle and be able to drive, so she was seen out and about on a regular basis. Everywhere she went, she encountered people who knew nothing about service dogs. Fieselman educated the public everywhere the two went.

Never a Charge to Clients

From the beginning, FSD has relied on grants and donations in order to place dogs at no cost to the clients. Back then, FSD could only place four to six dogs per year. An annual golf tournament was the major fundraiser, but the amount raised was not nearly enough. At the 2005 golf tournament, Fiesleman was invited to join the board of directors and is still on the board today.

“This gave me a unique perspective. I knew enough to get out and try to raise funds. Blu and I did demos, we went shopping, and—sure enough—the media caught up with us.” FSD was featured in many papers and TV spots. Things became a bit easier, but the organization’s location was just too small to achieve the goal of increasing the number of dogs that could be accommodated. In order to place more dogs, and place them faster, FSD needed to move to a larger facility. Even though donations had increased, it still was not enough to enable real growth.

Then, one seemingly normal day in 2006, Dorothy Rich—a benefactor who was mostly unknown to the organization—changed FSD forever. Very quietly and without any fuss, FSD received a million dollars from Dorothy’s estate. Later it was discovered that Dorothy had met P.J. and Mike—and Mike’s service dog, Denver—on a cruise. Dorothy fell in love with both Denver and FSD’s mission. Years later, she left a million dollars for FSD.

Moving to the Big Time

Dorothy’s bequest changed everything. Sharan Wilson became the new executive director, and after checking out more than a hundred possibilities, she found our current location in Englewood. It was everything that was needed and dreamed about. A fair amount of work was done converting the downstairs area and the barn into dog kennels. Upstairs, the barn was converted into an apartment so the trainers could work with the dogs in a home-like environment. Large play areas were built for the dogs, something that did not previously exist.

Marching On

Blu has since passed, and Fieselman’s current service dog, Toby, and she are still out and about meeting and educating people about service dogs and introducing them to FSD. Funding continues to be a challenge, and the golf tournament has given way to the late-summer Festival of the Bastardino—A Celebration of Mixed Heritage Dogs.

FSD places many more dogs per year now, but also has more people on the waiting list than ever. Sharan has a funny way of defining the challenges: “We have the worst business plan ever—we create a very expensive product, and then we give it away.” It costs, currently, $20,000–$25,000 to fully train and place a dog, and we love giving them new homes!

How Can You Help?

FSD will need to expand again soon, and can do so with help from our exemplary staff, our donors, and our volunteers. Unfortunately, the need for service dogs continues to grow, and FSD is planning on being there to help as long as needed. You can help Freedom Service Dogs rescue dogs and change lives. Planned giving is an easy, significant way to help FSD succeed far into the years to come. One example, the most common planned gift, is the bequest. It is as simple as including a statement in your will directing specific assets or a percentage of the estate to be transferred to Freedom Service Dogs.

For more information on bequests and other planned giving solutions, please contact Sharan Wilson or Matt Ingram at 303-922-6231.