It is often the simple joys in life that we take for granted: the sound of music, the laughter of a happy child, the companionship of a loyal pet. It’s certain that no one in a growing circle of family and friends who knows 4-year-old Amanda Ivancevich of Wilmington will take anything in life for granted, ever again.
It is something of a miracle that Amanda is even here to talk about. She suffered an in utero stroke that impacted a great deal of the left side of her brain and some of the right side. The fact that she survived the stroke amazed even her doctors. Amanda was born in June 2004. In December of that year, she was first diagnosed with cerebral palsy and then battled seizures that were diagnosed as a severe form of epilepsy known as infantile spasms. With a grim prognosis regarding her intellectual development, this feisty little girl fought back, learning to speak at 10 months, and continues, despite all odds, to make progress. Medication, diet and other treatments, however, were failing to keep her seizures at bay, and by September 2005, she was struggling with 100 of them every day, effectively bringing her developmental processes to a grinding halt.
Surgery was recommended, and in October 2005, Amanda underwent a left-side hemispherectomy, which essentially removed about half of the left side of her brain and completely disconnected it from the right side. With it went her speech center and 25 percent of her eyesight.
Now, almost three years later, as you watch her struggle into positions, wrestle with language skills and battle with simple balance during an occupational therapy session, you’re aware of the developmental issues that will be a part of her life forever. But you’d never know it by observing her laugh, noting the impish gleam in her eyes or listening to an ear-splitting shriek that she’ll often release at moments of intense enjoyment.
"She can laugh for a half-hour straight," says her mother, Dr. Susan Ivancevich, "to the point where she gives herself hiccups."
It’s there, in those eyes and in that laugh, and in that happy shriek, that you learn the powerful lesson of simple joys in a complicated life.
Amanda has just received a strong helping hand in her life-long developmental struggle. Make that ‘paw,’ because in July, she brought home a golden retriever named ELLIE — her name is always capitalized — who has been training for a little over a year now to become her permanent companion, assisting her in a variety of ways as she grows ... physically, mentally and emotionally. ELLIE will help Amanda walk, retrieve things that she drops and open doors for her, both literally and figuratively.
ELLIE and Amanda are part of a program called paws4people. Specifically, they’re part of an adjunct of that program called paws4prisons, in which dogs are selected for training and then trained by meticulously screened inmates of a correctional facility. ELLIE was trained by an inmate at the Secure Female Facility of the United States Penitentiary, Hazelton in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. She was one of a handful of dogs chosen to launch the program for the first time at the facility, which had opened its doors in January of 2007 (the prison itself opened in 2004).
While it is tempting to maintain a strong spotlight on Amanda’s story, and the myriad of ways in which ELLIE will be assisting her, it is more of a multi-faceted story than that. There are, of course, other beneficiaries, other recipients, each with their own story of the ways in which the unique skills of these dogs will bring joy, hope and carefully designed assistance into their lives. But there is, too, the added and unanticipated benefit of the joy, hope and assistance they bring to the inmates who have trained them.
"Meeting the inmates changed everything," says paws4people executive director and paws4prison program manager Kyria Henry. "It turned out to be as much for them as for the clients. Meeting them as real people, and recognizing that they received equal benefits from the dogs, changed our minds a lot as far as goals went. Now, it’s about helping the inmates, too. It’s no longer about them just working for us, training the dogs."
"Animal Planet did a series on the Cell Dog program in Washington State," says Terry Henry, chairman and executive director of paws4people (and Kyria’s father), "and they found that the prison where they instituted the program had a zero recidivism rate. We felt if we could get one lady to not go back to prison and get one extra dog trained, it’d be worth the effort."
It was, according to Terry, an eight- or nine-month process, but by May 2007, the prison was ready to start delivering dogs to the program. ELLIE was one of their first and showed something of a propensity to bring out the best in both the inmates training her and the client with whom she was ultimately matched, Amanda Ivancevich.
Before she had even met Amanda, ELLIE bonded in a unique way with one of the inmates, Claudia W. When the dogs first arrived, they all pretty much ignored Claudia. A "prim and proper" sort of person, she did not invite the playful camaraderie that’s at the heart and soul of a human/animal relationship. Claudia maintained a certain distance and expected that the dogs would do likewise, which, for the most part, they did. Except ELLIE. For reasons that are still not clear to Claudia, but clearly appreciated, ELLIE ignored the ‘signals’ and persisted in selecting Claudia for specific and repeated attention.
"I thought there was something wrong with this dog, because she didn’t act normal and avoid contact with me," Claudia W. recalls in a program newsletter. "Her insistence (gave) me something that made me trust in myself again. She gave her love fully, with no expectations."
"The inmates in this facility are there because they’ve made mistakes. Most don’t have the interpersonal skills or background in which they’ve had a lot of love given to them. Most come out of abusive backgrounds," says Terry Henry. "The dogs help them restructure their lives, offering them a sense of self-esteem that comes with the realization that what they’re doing is extremely important to another human being. The program puts an emphasis on their self-esteem and value, which, for some, is the first time in their lives that they feel as if they’re productive, valued, respected human beings. It gives them hope that when they leave the prison, they’ll be able to lead productive lives."
ELLIE exhibited the same sort of behavior she’d demonstrated with Claudia W. when she met Amanda. With a variety of children to choose from, by way of physically approaching and maintaining contact, the golden retriever appeared to single out Amanda and do everything in its power to stay by her during the first visit, which was supposed to assist the training staff in determining which dogs would be suitable for which clients. Between them, ELLIE and Amanda made the choice abundantly clear.
"When they met," writes Susan Ivancevich in a program newsletter entry called A Mother’s Perspective, "there seemed to be an almost supernatural bond between them. ELLIE couldn’t seem to get enough of Amanda and vice versa. ELLIE seemed to bond with every member of our family faster than I ever recall seeing an animal bond with anyone."
There is yet another facet to the story that can be easily overlooked. In addition to the considerable benefits that the match between dog and client bring to dog, client and inmate of the Hazelton prison facility, there is the benefit, as well, that the tale itself offers to those who have experienced it first-hand and those who now, hear of it.
Amanda’s mother, who at one point during the four years of her daughter’s life, took up boxing in order to take some of her frustrations out on a punching bag, looks back these days and reflects not only on the things that are continuing to occur in Amanda’s life, but on the things that having Amanda around has brought to her own life.
"You spend a ton of time in your life worrying about things that never happen," Susan says. "I live very much in the moment now. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. It has to be something pretty big to appear on my radar screen." She turns to her husband, Dan, and smiles. "Ask him. I used to be pretty thin-skinned."
"We’re all going to be better people because there’s an amazing little girl in there," says Susan, looking over at Amanda, seated in a high chair. Amanda has a habit of lowering her head in something of an "Aw shucks" gesture when she knows that attention is drawn in her direction, and does so when Susan turns to her. "The joys of being around her are enormous. It’s fun to see her accomplish things. She has a spirit that’s tougher and sweeter than any of us," she adds. "I wish I could be as positive as she is."
We first brought you Amanda’s story, written by Marimar McNaughton, in Lumina News, Volume 7, Issue 15.