Teacher's pet offers students a lesson in life

May 17, 2000|By Laura Dreibelbis | Laura Dreibelbis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dori Tempio's English class at Hammond Middle School has an unusual new classmate. His name is Sullivan and he is very quiet, but not shy.

Sully is no ordinary student: Four legs, a tail, a shiny black coat and a red bandanna set him apart from others at the North Laurel school.

And Tempio is no ordinary teacher. Born with a neuromuscular disorder, she uses a wheelchair, and Sully has been her service dog in the school since March 21."He's become a big part of our class. He's even quieter than us," said RaadhaRaswant, a sixth-grader in Tempio's class."It's kind of funny the way he just lays there," said classmate TierraGaines.

Sully's trainer, Debbie Gavelek, of Fidos For Freedom Inc., an organization that trains and places service dogs with disabled people, is delighted with how well the schoolchildren and Sully have been able to ignore each other."This behavior is what we expect of the assistance dogs we train," said Gavelek. "After all, Sullivan would not enhance Mrs. Tempio's life if he detracted from her ability to do her job."

Tempio said Sully has enhanced her life in ways many people can't imagine."He's opened doors both literally and figuratively for me," she said.

When discussing the Labrador retriever, Tempio's face lights up and she fights back tears. Sully "makes me feel like more of an independent, functioning person - it allows me to be like everyone else."

Because of her disorder, Tempio lacks fine motor coordination in her hands and frequently drops things. Reclaiming a dropped pencil for a person without a disability would be a simple matter of bending over and picking it up, but for Tempio it could take 20 minutes.

Retrieving dropped items is one of many ways that Sully helps Tempio each day. He is always by her side, helping her dress, helping her get from her wheelchair to another seat and helping her to walk. During the school's recent performance of "The WonderfulWizard of Oz," which Tempio helped to direct, Sully was able to assist the teacher up the stairs to the stage.

When she is teaching, Sully lies quietly by Tempio's chair, ready to respond when needed. When the wheelchair motor comes on, he rises to accompany her. She speaks to him in a quiet, firm voice. He will respond only to her commands.

A few schoolchildren come to Tempio's class to hang out with Sully and their teacher during lunch. Pupil Lindsay Bealegives him some water after receiving permission from Tempio. When finished, he is commanded to "hold, sit and give" to retrieve the water bowl.

The kids may give Sully his water or a treat during the day, but no other contact is permitted. No one is to touch or pet him. When his harness is on, he is at work and is to respond only to Tempio. With Tempio's permission, others can talk to Sully."Mrs. Tempio pets him for us and lets us say, `Hi,' to him a lot," said sixth-grader Steve Perraud.

Sully and his master are teaching schoolchildren lessons not found in textbooks: The kids see different ways to achieve goals and independence. Perseverance and overcoming obstacles are important life lessons.

Tempio wants her kids to understand that "everybody has obstacles, some are just more easily seen."

She said she has always avoided letting her disability be the center of her life."Deciding to have a service dog was not easy," she said. "I had to admit to myself that I needed help."

Tempio approached Principal David Oaksand Superintendent Michael E. Hickey in December 1998 with the idea. Oaks acknowledges that he had doubts. There were issues such as allergies, fear and cleanliness to overcome. A lot of public relations was done to set parameters, give parents time to adjust, ask questions and possibly complain.

No one did."The reason it works so well here is we have terrific kids - they have a lot of respect for her [Tempio] and adults," Oaks said.

Gavelek thinks it was the team approach that brought success to the endeavor."Everyone pulled together to make it work - questions did not become obstacles," she said.

As for Tempio, she is thrilled to have Sullivan and deeply appreciates the support of the school system."Students are the number one priority," Tempio said. "I do this job to make them independent."

For more information on service dogs, call 410-880-4178 or visit the Web site www.fidosforfreedom.org. E-mail: fidos@erols.com.

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