OXFORD – Christy Gardner, founder and director of Mission Working Dogs in Oxford, has spent much of the past year raising funds to build a training facility and office despite the pandemic and months of training for the US Paralympics in Chula Vista, Cal. Gardner also continued the work she had done for the past nine years, training service dogs to help Mainers with diverse needs.
In the midst of all of her demanding work, Gardner also had the surprise of a lifetime earlier this year when she received a call from New York’s Tunnels to Towers Foundation saying they would build her a house for free.
“They said they wanted to present me with a mortgage-free, wheelchair-accessible smart home,” Gardner said during an interview on Friday at their Lewiston home, amid happy dogs and packed and empty boxes. “You just called and offered.
“Literally, I thought they were a scam and were going to hang up. I really thought who would call someone and offer them a house? “
The call was legitimate and once she got over the shock she still went to her website for confirmation. Due to the pandemic, early communication with Tunnels to Towers was all virtual. They then flew her to her headquarters on Staten Island last spring, where they worked with her to select the features and design for her home, an effort that continued after construction began.
Tunnels to Towers bought the land and financed the house. Gardner paid for the excavation and the installation of utility poles. A second organization, A Soldier’s Journey Home, is providing the manpower to build Gardner’s new home in just two weeks.
“You [Journey Home] build a house a year, ”said Gardner. “You are active and retired first responders. For example, some of the 9/11 firefighters who retired from lung disease are now tradesmen. Volunteers come from all over the country to take part, but many local contractors who contribute to the project also volunteer or donate. “
“It feels pretty crazy,” Gardner said of the whole head spinning process. “Like the military, nothing is real until it happens. But people give me things every day. This morning the Nassau County Fire Brigade Association gave me a laptop. I’ll get a MacBook Pro that will operate the entire smart home, including apps, on my cell phone.
“Last night we had a fundraiser for Working Dogs in Lost Valley. The assembly was giving away a beautiful wooden flag that one of the boys had carved. They all bought tickets for the raffle themselves in order to donate them to the foundation. “
“It was $ 880 they gave Christy,” added Tereasa Brilliant, who joined Mission Working Dogs in January. “So one of them came up with $ 20 and said, ‘Let’s just do 900.’ And another came up with hundreds, just to make a thousand out of it. For the training center. “
“One of the local volunteers who bought tickets for the raffle last night was there this morning and told us she bought a dog wash station,” said Gardner. “It was one that we had on our ‘wish list’. This is a professional dog wash station valued at $ 2,000. “
Her new home is just down the street where Mission Working Dogs headquarters are being built.
The training facility will have two training rooms, one for small dogs and one for larger dogs in training. It will include the main office and a volunteer dormitory, a day kennel and a boardroom. The building will also be fully wheelchair accessible so that it can become an internationally accredited facility, and eight wheelchair accessible cabins where customers can stay overnight while they learn to work with their trained service dog.
Gardner founded Mission Working Dogs last July. It currently has 24 dogs in training (with an Ohio donated Berniedoodle who will join the crew in July), an eight-person board, and 18 volunteers. The first senior class consisted of four dogs that would later serve the people they were paired with and one that didn’t quite make it but is going through the program again.
“I didn’t plan on starting a foundation,” explained Gardner. “I’ve trained alone for the past nine years. But there is such a demand in Maine. During the pandemic, ours was the only group allowed to continue classes. And we’re the only ones in Maine that aren’t just for veterans. We also do mobility assistance, not just post-traumatic stress disorder. Our dogs help people with conditions such as cerebral palsy, who are paraplegic or paraplegic. The dogs will open and close doors, operate lights, pick up dropped objects. “
Last summer she began training Doug, a golden retriever donated by an Arizona rescue operation, while preparing for the Chula Vista Paralympics. Doug was supposed to be trained for another veteran, but it turned out that he became so bonded with Gardner that the other veteran decided to keep him and he would get another service dog. As soon as Garland returned to Maine from California, she took on Gidget, a yellow Labrador she is now training for Doug’s original job.
Doug, now 21 months old, has become Gardner’s main service animal, allowing her older golden moxie to retire and serve as the house elder. In addition to Moxie and Doug, she has five other dogs in duty training who live with her at home.
“The service dog has to be right for the individual,” said Gardner. “Depending on your personality and what you like to do. If you’re an avid runner, you need a dog that can do this, not a Basset Hound.
“It’s an ongoing program. We find puppy educators who are suitable for this dog. Not only can you love the dog, you have to commit to coming to class together and taking the dog out in public between classes to socialize. “
Gardner was free to roam the site last week to help, thank volunteers, and watch the progress. Her presence was banned after Friday in order to preserve the element of surprise when she sees the final result. The timing worked out well because she had to fly to California on Sunday for the next Paralympics attempts. Doug will be with them, of course, and Moxie and her five training dogs will stay with trusted carers for the week.
On Saturday, Tunnels to Towers and A Soldier’s Journey Home will welcome her again to give her the keys to her smart home during an inauguration ceremony.
“There is a list of at least 50 local businesses and individuals who helped build Christy’s house in some way,” said Sharon Holland, communications director for A Soldier’s Journey Home. “Our annual build is how many of our volunteers spend their two week summer vacation. On average there are around 100 workers on site every day. It’s a marathon that starts at 7 a.m. and continues until the house is ready within 12 days. “
“A Soldier’s Journey Home is truly honored to be a part of building this home for Christy,” added retired FDNY Lt. Patrick “Paddy” Neville, President of A Soldier’s Journey Home, added. “It is the least we can do to give back for the sacrifices she has made on our behalf and on behalf of our nation.”