By Kristin Schultz
Canine-veteran organization Operation At Ease has a new “woof” over its head at 203 Central Ave. in Rotterdam thanks to the determination of a high school student.
Niskayuna resident Joni Bonilla founded OAE only two years ago after a family friend and veteran suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder lost his dog and found it next to impossible to find another appropriately trained and certified canine companion.
The premise is simple: find dogs from shelters and pair them with veterans with PTSD or other conditions who would benefit from a service dog. Then, engage the veteran and his or her new four-legged friend in regular training until the dog is a certified service dog, able to accompany its owner anywhere under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Most people require about 2 feet of personal space to be comfortable,” said Bonilla. “Someone with PTSD may require 4 feet. A service dog can help create that buffer in public or in crowds.”
To become certified, dogs and owners must complete training courses and pass exams. Until the end of April, Bonilla and volunteers were teaching classes out of Dog’s Retreat in Latham.
Determined to help
Emma Willard School senior Rosemarie Davidson, 17, heard about OAE from a teacher and wanted, as part of her Signature Project, to raise the $20,000 necessary to connect a certified service dog with a veteran in need.
“My project was called PSD — psychiatric service dogs — for PTSD,” Davidson said.
The project was multipronged. Davidson included an educational component. She herself argued for and won the right to have a companion dog on campus, as she suffers from depression. Since bringing her miniature schnauzer-poodle mix Treena to the Troy campus, Davidson has been educating classmates and teachers on the importance of service dogs.
Davidson’s project also included a community service and fundraising component. Aware of and sympathetic to veterans, she researched the cost of providing a veteran with a companion dog. A teacher told her about Operation At Ease and, having found out the average cost of a companion dog for a veteran to be around $20,000, she called Bonilla and offered to donate so a veteran could get a dog.
“I told her we provide the dogs at no charge to the veterans,” said Bonilla. “She said, ‘Well, then I’ll just give you $20,000.’ What do you say? Of course! And she just did it.”
“She is amazingly persistent,” said Emma Willard Signature Project Director and Science Department chairperson Jon Calos. “No matter what the hoop was, she’d jump through it. She seized the opportunity and ran with it.”
Davidson used multiple channels to raise the funds. She herself dog-sat 14 canines last summer and donated her earnings.She has also donated the paychecks she received for working at Blooming Grove Veterinary Hospital this year.
She also reached out to the community selling pies for Valentine’s Day, putting on raffles and selling dress-down tickets (these allow students to dress more casually) at school.
Bonilla decided to use the funds to open her own facility. The $20,000 will cover rent for a year with money left over to help with utilities. Bonilla plans to offer dog training and certification classes to the public for a fee in order to stay sustainable long term.
The classes offered to the public will include private lessons as well as months of classroom training. The cost will be around $3,500 and after an examination, the dog will be certified as a psychiatric service and emotional support animal.
Bonilla plans to make a full push to enroll people in the classes in the fall, after getting settled in the new building and after her husband returns from his military deployment.
The classes will, of course, continue to be free to veterans, in accordance with Operation At Ease’s mission.
Veterans and volunteers came to the soft opening to celebrate Davidson’s efforts and the new building.
“We want to thank the volunteers,” said Bonilla. “They do so much. They make phone calls, do fundraising, research grants, drive veterans to the classes, everything.”
The building was formerly a crossfit gym and includes 1,000 square feet of open space in the front that will be used for classes and 200 square feet of office space.
Davidson plans to attend Berry College in Georgia in the fall then pursue her passion for helping animals as a veterinarian.
“Who knows how many people and animals Operation At Ease can help,” she said. “To be able to give to veterans and dogs is the best gift.”
Operation At Ease is planning a grand opening in September and will spend the summer getting settled and collecting office and training items.