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Family raising funds so CoCo can be trained as service dog - Kearney Hub: State

Family raising funds so CoCo can be trained as service dog

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Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013 7:38 am

GRAND ISLAND -- Alex needs a service dog.

A dog to keep him safe. A dog to watch over him. A dog to know when Alex is having silent seizures brought on by his chromosomal disorder and his Tourette's.

A dog large enough to pull Alex back when the 7-year-old is trying to leave the house at night. A dog big enough to sit on Alex when he's trying to hurt others or himself, like when he pulled out two of his teeth just because he was mad.

Alex has that dog.

She's CoCo, a 1-year-old St. Bernard puppy, now at 80 pounds and growing to her full weight of 230.

But CoCo needs two months of training in California before she can really help Alex.

The training costs $7,000. Alex's parents, Robert and Kim Anderson of Grand Island, have $2,000.

Their church, First Presbyterian, will hold a pancake feed from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday to raise money for CoCo's training.

"We've seen his struggles," the Rev. Caroline Price-Gibson said. "The dog is ready to go now. We've just got to help them come up with the money."

Alex's doctors in Florida suggested that he have a service dog. They had hoped the dog would be trained by Alex's December 2012 medical appointment.

The family had bought CoCo for $350 and brought her home to see if she would fit with the whole family -- Robert, Kim, Alex and five other Anderson children ages 12, 10, 8 and 6-year-old twins.

"Everyone loves her," Kim said. "She is the best dog."

In fact, CoCo already seems to know she has an extra job to do.

When Alex lost focus over the holidays and started to run, CoCo instinctively held him by the back of the shirt.

Running is an issue for Alex. It is the trait that actually led the Andersons to discover there was something not quite right with him.

Kim had taken the then preschooler to a local cookie shop to buy treats. As she let go of his hand to tear the check from her checkbook, he bolted -- straight into the parking lot, where he was struck by a sport utility vehicle. The driver had heard Kim's screams and slowed, but still Alex was knocked over.

His reaction?

"He sat and laughed," his worried mother said.

He laughed, too, as he got older and stuck keys in electrical outlets and felt the stinging jolts.

"He doesn't feel pain," Kim said. "He has a tendency to not be safe."

Alex doesn't understand boundaries either. He has walked through the family's Kennedy Drive neighborhood and into neighbors' houses, where he sits down.

What was initially misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder was discovered in the last two years to be pervasive development disorder, or PDD, Kim said.

Genetic testing revealed that Alex has a duplication of the 16p 11.3 chromosome. Instead of the normal two, he has three. He falls on the autism spectrum, is mildly developmentally delayed, is blind in his left eye and has 25 percent hearing loss. While most kids his age are learning at the second-grade level, Alex is still working on preschool activities. He's verbal and functioning but has outbursts that pose challenges.

He was kicked out of school for a time for aggression and now splits his academic day between his neighborhood school, Newell Elementary, and the Skills Academy at Dodge Elementary.

Kim works during the day for her father, Mark Stelk, at General Collection, plus works from home in the evenings. Robert works nights at Americold Logistics, so the couple can tag team being with the children. Both work more than 40 hours a week in order to meet the family's financial needs. They are not on assistance. They have private insurance.

Still, costs are high.

"Whenever we think we have some money to save, here comes another medical bill," Kim said.

In a good month -- with no extra illnesses and prescription coupons -- Alex's five meds cost $350.

But extra illnesses are common. Children with degrees of autism are more susceptible to sinus issues, Kim said. Alex just spent three days in an Omaha hospital with a sinus problem.

And more maladies are cropping up.

"The doctor told us to expect that, every year he gets older, he will get something new," Kim said.

Along with the PDD has come Tourette's. While most people with Tourette's have either muscle tics or verbal tics, Alex has both. He also has fragile X, which contributes to anxiety and aggression. He eats almost constantly but rarely finishes any food.

"His body just can't slow down," Kim said.

Most recently, Alex was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, which causes skin pigmentations that may or may not form into tumors.

While cures are not in the realm of Alex's maladies, dealing with symptoms is.

And Kim said a service dog can do much to help him, according to his doctors.

She has done bake sales and ran a Christmas store at the mall to help raise funds for CoCo's training. A savings account was set up at Five Points Bank in Alex's name. Alex's grandma, Wanda Stelk, is making dog biscuits that are sold at Family Pet Clinic, with proceeds going toward CoCo's training. And the church is stepping up to move the fundraising along more quickly.

The hope is to have the money raised by the end of February so CoCo can be flown to the trainer outside San Diego in March. Alex would have to fly out at least twice, and the whole family will have to go at the end of training to learn how to respond to CoCo.

Alex's next appointment with his specialists in Florida is in June. The doctor wants Alex and a trained CoCo at that time, Kim said.

"I feel guilty, and I feel horrible as his mother that I can't do this for him right away," she said, casting her eyes down to the floor. "I feel like I'm at a standstill."

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