In this recurring special feature, Nonahood News recognizes and honors those everyday heroes who have served or are currently serving our country and making a difference in our community. Those who reside in the Lake Nona and surrounding area are our Nona Heroes.
This month, in light of the tragic event in Las Vegas, it was fitting to highlight a one-of-a-kind first responder team in Saint Cloud who make a difference using two hands and four paws. You might have heard the saying that there is no better therapy than puppy therapy, and these two are the epitome of such a statement.
Meet Jackie Spence and Merlin. Chief Jackie Spence is the Osceola County Fire Rescue Health and Safety Division Chief, and she has lived in the St. Cloud area since 1978. “I’ve been a firefighter for 28 years with Osceola County. I worked four years before that at St. Cloud Fire. I started right out of high school, wanting to be a firefighter after attending career day workshop at St. Cloud High. (Yes, they do work!) I rose through the ranks, from Firefighter/Paramedic, to Engineer, to Lieutenant, to Battalion Chief and finally to my current position of Division Chief.”
Merlin is a three-year-old Australian Shepherd who has received service dog training. Chief Spence is his foster mom as he continues his training to be a service dog, and over that period of time, they have developed an unbreakable bond. Jackie met Merlin while volunteering at Pawsitive Action Foundation, a service/assistance dog non-profit located just south of Lake Nona. She and Merlin have been working together as a trauma response team since early December 2016 when a local fire department suffered a great loss of one of its members. They made numerous visits to fire stations and the communication dispatch center as well as attending the funeral.
“I have had Merlin for about two years, continuing his training as a service dog. After working with him, I realized his potential as a trauma response dog with helping out first responders. Having an organization made up of first responders for first responders has been a vision of mine for several years. My involvement with Peer Support in the fire department has made me see the need for such an organization. Firefighters are more apt to talk to other firefighters, law enforcement to law enforcement, etc.”
This is where K9 Helping Heroes comes in. Chief Spence founded the nonprofit as it became apparent how important trauma response dogs are and how this effort needs to expand. K9 Helping Heroes is actively seeking local first responders who have a therapy dog or a dog they would like to certify as a therapy dog. The organization is strictly volunteer based. It’s been a year in the making, but the actual filing to become a non-profit was right before she and Merlin embarked on a trip that would change lives.
Chief Spence and Merlin took it upon themselves to fly out to Las Vegas in the wake of the mass shooting at Mandalay Bay to aid the first responders in helping make the coping process just a little bit easier. “[It was] emotional. We worked four straight days, and Merlin was exhausted every night. The next morning, he was ready to go as soon as I pulled his vest out. He seems to enjoy his work and never stopped until we got back to our hotel room. The dogs were very accepted. As we returned to stations previously visited, they knew the dogs by name.”
In moments of terror and tragedy, we rely on first responders such as the police and firefighters to help out and save us, but who helps/saves them? “Firefighters (and law enforcement) inherently have never wanted to ask for help. First responders help, we don’t ask for help. Merlin, and dogs like him, help bridge the gap by allowing an emotional release. It lowers the defense threshold,” Chief Spence said.
The bond Merlin and Chief Spence have is loving and compassionate. She serves as Merlin’s support system, and she credits him for doing all the work. Merlin is friendly to all but tends to sense those who might be struggling. He spends more time with those individuals and tries to make several contacts with that person or persons.
“On our trip to Vegas, Merlin kept going to a firefighter who stood away from the group. When asked by the fire peer support member if anyone had been affected directly, this firefighter denied any direct effect but then went on to say a family member had tickets to go but didn’t attend. The family member’s friend had gone without her, and the friend had suffered a tremendous loss. It made me realize how empathetic Merlin was, and how he was helping this firefighter as the firefighter continued to pet him.”
With these dogs, words don’t have to be expressed. A touch goes a long way. Those of us who are lucky enough to have a dog as a member of our family know the indescribable and untouchable bond you form with man’s best friend. There’s a reason for that special phrase, and this team is living proof.
If you would like to nominate someone for our next Nona Heroes feature, please complete the form here: http://nonahood.to/nonaheroes.