By Jenny Cowan
In many ways, Michael McDonald, a 7-year-old from Mullica Hill, is just like other boys his age. He loves Star Wars, riding his scooter, and spending time in his backyard fort. His big brown eyes and wide, warm smile exude kindness, and his laugh is infectious.
But Michael is also very different from other children his age. He suffers from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a disease that causes a host of behavioral, mental, and physical problems. His problems include Asperger’s Syndrome, permanent brain damage, and ADHD.
Dave and Donna McDonald brought him home as a foster child when he was 6-weeks-old. Michael’s biological mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol during her pregnancy, causing damage to his developing brain.
Even with the many challenges Michael would surely face, his foster family loved him as their own from the very beginning. The McDonalds adopted him just before his second birthday, and he became the youngest of four brothers, affectionately called “Mikey” by his family.
One of Michael’s biggest challenges, and the one most worrisome for his safety, is his lack of healthy boundaries. His parents explained that he trusts everyone, hugging strangers within seconds of meeting them. He is also very impulsive, prone to wander off if he sees something of interest.
“Our biggest challenge is keeping him safe. It’s often difficult to keep him in the house and he can easily wander off,” Dave McDonald said.
Dave and Donna McDonald have tried many tactics for keeping Michael safe. Despite using a driveway alarm, a clip-on monitor, and a pocket GPS system, he continued to disappear the minute he became distracted by something or someone interesting.
The McDonald’s began to search for a better option. As luck would have it, Donna attended a FASD conference in the fall where she learned about a program called 4 Paws for Ability that seemed to match perfectly with her son’s needs.
4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit organization run out of Xenia, OH, provides highly trained service dogs for disabled children. Unlike many other organizations, 4 Paws for Ability has no minimum age requirement and does not discriminate based on severity of disability.
4 Paws for Ability trains dogs to provide a number of highly specialized services to children. For example, a dog can be trained for search and rescue, able to track a child’s scent for miles and return him to safety. The dogs are also trained to provide calming techniques, important for children on the Autism spectrum. A trained dog can recognize when a child is experiencing anxiety or difficulty with sensory processing, and provide targeted pressure to the child’s body to help him relax.
In other words, exactly what Michael needs.
There’s just one catch. In order to receive a dog, families are required to raise $14,000 to put towards the cost of the service dog. 4 Paws for Ability explains that the total cost to place a dog with a family exceeds $22,000. 4 Paws for Ability pays the additional $8,000 out of funds donated by generous supporters.
Not only are families required to raise $14,000, 4 Paws for Ability stipulates that the full amount must be raised before the organization even begins looking for a suitable dog match.
Donna admitted that the task of raising so much money on her own felt overwhelming. Could they really ask family and friends for so much money?
But for the McDonald family, who recently had to pull Michael out of school because of emotional and behavioral difficulties, time was of the essence. Getting him a service dog sooner, rather than later, would be key to his healthy development.
So in September the family set an ambitious goal – to raise $14,000 before Christmas. “It was overwhelming to set that kind of goal, because Mike requires so much time already. To put that much time into something else seemed impossible,” said Donna.
The question was, where to start?
“I began mailing out a few hundred letters to everyone I have ever known in my lifetime,” Donna laughed.
The family soon set up a fundraising website, and created a Facebook page to spread awareness.
As they waited for donations to come in, they began looking for other ways to actively spread their message to potential supporters. They tried hosting a booth at Mantua’s Community Day, but due to rainy weather and poor turnout, Donna said they lost more money setting up the booth than they received in donations.
The McDonalds refused to let the failure deter them. When Wendy’s Restaurant in Woodbury Heights suggested hosting a fundraiser night, the family jumped at the chance.
Other local businesses and organizations pitched in too. The local VFW offered to host a raffle to be held during the Wendy’s fundraiser, and many businesses donated gifts card and items to be raffled off.
The whole family pitched in too. Michael’s brother Carl, an ICU nurse in Vineland, took hundreds of raffle tickets to his work, selling close to $1,000 worth of tickets on his own.
The night of the fundraiser, Michael’s 16-year-old brother, Adam, dressed up in a dog suit to stand outside the restaurant and attract people to the event. The family’s hard work paid off.
That day over 100 people showed up inside Wendy’s, and many more passed through the drive thru, to support the McDonald family.
“Many people who were at Wendy’s were those who could least afford to give money to another family. A single mom with three children, a young Naval recruit and his wife, and a retiree with a grown special needs son,” Donna said. “Doing something like this [fundraiser] really renewed our faith in the goodness and kindness of people.”
At the end of the fundraiser, Dave and Donna hoped that they had achieved their goal. For over two months their home had been filled with posters, paper, and raffle donations. But was it enough?
On Dec. 15 they received the confirmation that they had met their fundraising goal. In less than three months they had raised $14,271.
“We are astounded that we actually raised so much money in such a short time, but we decided that if we were going to do this, we all had to put everything into it and get the job done,” Donna McDonald said.
Now, the next steps will be to match Michael McDonald with his service dog. The process of matching a dog with a child is complex, and typically takes about 8 to 10 months to complete.
First, the family has to create a video to send in to the dog trainers. “The video has to show his every day life. We have to show them every room in the house and everyone who lives here.
“We also need to show them Michael on a good day, as well as Michael on a bad day,” Donna explained. “4 Paws will actually show the dog our video, and they will use the video to help familiarize the dog with Michael before we even arrive.”
Because there is currently such a backlog of people waiting for dogs, the McDonalds expect to receive their service dog in April 2016. Once 4 Paws for Ability has made what they determine to be a successful match, the family will travel to Ohio for two weeks of training. During that training the entire family will bond and learn how to interact with the dog.
Once home in New Jersey, the dog will accompany Michael wherever he goes. It will be both his safe keeper and much needed friend. It will give Dave and Donna a new sense of security, knowing that their son has a specially trained set of eyes watching over him at all times. They hope that this new dog will allow their son to continue to grow and flourish, helping him with his biggest challenges.
“Dave and I have spent many hours discussing our hopes for Michael’s future. We just want him to grow up to be a happy, healthy person, who leaves the world a little better than he found it,” Donna said.
With his family behind him, a family willing to do whatever it takes to help him succeed and a community of people who believe in him, Michael surely has a bright future ahead of him.