By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
DELAND - Michelle Lazar is going up and down stairs at the University of Indiana these days thanks to Cricket. That might not seem like a big deal, but it is to a college student who can't climb stairs without help.
"She's a balance-and-brace dog," Ms. Lazar, 20, said. "She helps me up and down stairs and walking through campus."
Ms. Lazar has brain injuries that started at age 6. Recent surgery left her with hemiparesis, a profound weakness on her left side. My Angel With Paws, a DeLand non-profit organization that trains and gives away service and therapy dogs, united Cricket and Ms. Lazar. The service animal came with an unexpected bonus - easier socialization.
"Everybody loves her," she said. "People don't even notice the brace on my leg anymore. Now they say, 'Oh, I love dogs,' instead of 'Oh, what happened to your leg?'"
Chris Tejcek, founder and director, said My Angel With Paws, 3098 Marsh Road, started in January 2009 and has given away 18 service and therapy dogs. Three went to veterans with service-related injuries - one with a spinal-cord injury, and two with traumatic brain injuries. The majority of the dogs are in Florida - nine have stayed in Volusia County.
"We're committed to our clients and very committed to our dogs," Ms. Tejcek said. "We want to make sure both are safe and happy."
The non-profit organization has 38 puppies that are in, or will go on to, different kinds of training. Some will be retrievers that can help paraplegics and others pick up items, turn on lights, open doors and other functions. Others will be response dogs - animals that detect when people with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder are getting overwhelmed, and give them assistance.
Karen Grimes, 59, recently received Chance from My Angel with Paws. Ms. Grimes is a wheelchair user due to myotonic muscular dystrophy. She lives near Lake Mary. Ms. Grimes said Chance is a service animal that helps her with daily tasks, such as taking off pants, but has turned out to be a therapy dog, too.
"I'm a little agoraphobic," she said. "Chance makes it possible for me to feel safe going outside. So, I take myself places. Before I had a service dog, I wasn't able to do that."
Ms. Tejcek said about 100 volunteers help My Angel With Paws at different levels. The organization has found some individual donors, and gets help from the Port Orange Fraternal Order of Eagles, No. 4089. In April the organization hosted the Doggie Dinner, which included an auction.
"The dogs will take the items to the person who bid, and take the payment to the cashier," Ms. Tejcek said.
About 30 people are waiting for service and therapy animals from My Angel With Paws. Ms. Lazar and Ms. Grimes said they contacted other service-animal organizations and found that some charged as much as $15,000 for service animals.
For more about My Angel With Paws, visit its website, www.myangelwithpaws.org. Its phone is 490-4949.