Friends – those who are gentle, dedicated, protective, truthful, and always have your back, plus some of them might give you a lick on the face. This is my description of a true friend.
Now meet Ayla. She has four legs, fuzzy golden fur, warm brown eyes, and a tail that never stops wagging. Ayla is a beautiful golden retriever. I met her in 2012 on her job in Philadelphia, MS. On that day Ayla was honored with a reception at the Neshoba General Hospital. She had been selected Mississippi’s Department of Mental Health, Volunteer of the Year.
The awards continue to come to Ayla. She is an honorary member of the Mississippi Conference of Social Welfare and as well Ayla scored a perfect score in Orlando on the Canine Companions for Independence Wounded Veterans Initiative Program (CCI).
What does that mean? It means, with assistance from Ayla, (a CCI trained dog), she helps adults, children, and veterans, who have disabilities, improve the use of upper extremities, improve gaiting and sitting as well as improve memory, decrease depression, increase social skills, and most importantly, become that person’s best friend.
Canine Companions is the oldest and largest non-profit organization that provides trained dogs, like Ayla, to enhance the lives of those who otherwise might have little or no hope. CCI has placed more than 37,000 assistance dogs in the homes of handlers, who take the furry friends to those places that are in desperate need of their services. The cost to train one dog is $75,000.
Mississippi is extremely fortunate to have Ayla and her buddy, Maggie Mae (a therapy dog), at the Activity Department of the Neshoba County Nursing Home. Both dogs, along with their handler, Stacy Cook, provide comfort, improve emotional and psychological well-being, provide a listening ear, lessen stress, and relieve depression and agitation. These dogs give the residents a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Many have said, Ayla’s type of medication has no side-effects.
Ayla has assisted with many art projects at the facility. She holds a paint brush in her mouth and allows the resident to guide the canvas, making beautiful paintings. The most recent project was a vegetable garden planted, nurtured, and harvested by the residents. With Ayla’s gentle wagging tail, she escorted the patients each morning to the garden. At harvest, Ayla joined the residents with a celebration banquet. The table was heavy with tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, squash, and peppers. Following the banquet, the residents created a cookbook of recipes used with food from the garden.
Ayla knows 44 commands aimed at helping people become more independent. She proudly wears the blue, with gold lettering, CCI badge and collar. When off duty, Ayla and Maggie Mae live with their handler, Stacy. However off-time is rare, because there is much work to be done and an intense amount of training as well continues for both dogs and Stacy.
Ayla and Stacy are members of the Philadelphia Woman’s Club, Mississippi Federated Women’s Clubs. She and Stacy have been honored several times by this organization for their work.
Ayla is always a star, an unassuming star, yes, but when she enters a room, all heads turn her way. She greets everyone, with gentle brown eyes and a tail that waves slowly, round and around. She is everyone’s best friend. Just ask the thousands of people who love her. Ayla is a true, sweet and pure, with unconditional love.
I’m proud to call her my friend.
Read more about Ayla and her mission: www.neshobageneral.com
Anne McKee is a writer and storyteller. See her website: www.annemckee.net