WESTLAKE, Ohio - They come to Ohio from all over the country, all over the world even. All for a life-changing event. It's where man's best friend becomes a child's best friend.
Going out is now easier for 6-year-old Connor Kremser and his family from Westlake, including shopping for shoes at Crocker Park. Connor's dad, Mark, said his little guy doesn't go anywhere without his 2-and-a-half-year-old lab.
"Without Wonka, taking Connor to a store is all but impossible," he said. That's because Connor is autistic. Wonka is Connor's specially-trained service dog, a companion that soothes Connor's behavior.
Wonka was specially-trained in the small town of Xenia, outside of Dayton. Families come from all over to the 4 Paws For Ability Dog Training Center. It's one of the first organizations of its kind to train dogs for autistic children, like Willie Koonce of Alaska. The 9-year-old also has Down syndrome and ADHD.
"I expect it to be life changing. I don't know what I would do without it at this point. I'm kind of at the end of my rope," said Willie's mother, Carmi Koonce.
Every dog that graduates the year-long program has at least 500 hours of training and some specialize as seizure-alert dogs. Before the families can take their dogs home for good, they must attend an intensive, 10-day class with other special needs families where they meet and train with their new dogs.
"I'm going to be the trainer and I'm going to brush him, bathe him, walk him and clean up his poop, I think," said 14-year-old Jamin Irwin of Akron, Indiana.
Most of the training is done inside of an old VFW hall, but not all. Head trainer Jennifer Varick and an assistant spend hours each day in a nearby park teaching dogs to track and follow a child's scent.
"We get calls all the time of dogs that have found the child as they're headed towards a busy road or found the child as they're in a pool or something like that. So we hear success stories all the time, which is rewarding," said Varick.
4 Paws For Ability will place about 100 service dogs this year. It's placed about 650 since its inception in 1998. Karen Shirk, who suffers from a rare neuromuscular disease, started the non-profit program after every organization she applied to turned her down for a service dog.
So, she bought a puppy and trained it herself. She credits that dog with saving her life.
"When I look around at this big place and 36 staff and having 200 dogs and look back when I had two dogs in a one-bedroom apartment, it's just amazing. It's incredible. It's been a blessing to me because it gave me a purpose," Shirk said.
It costs about $22,000 to train a service dog at 4 Paws For Ability. Each family is asked to help raise $13,000.
For the Kremser family, it's money well spent. To them, Wonka is priceless.
If you would like more information about the service dog organization, you can contact 4 Paws For Ability at (937) 374-0385 or go to their website 4pawsforability.org.