Ash Flat mom raises money for son’s service dog

By Syd Hayman Published October 30, 2016 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Roxanne Daily and her family are working to raise $25,000 for a service dog that will assist her autistic son. Conor. The family has partnered with Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, a Virginia-based nonprofit that trains and provides service dogs for those with autism, diabetes, seizure disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

— On Easter Sunday, Roxanne Daily was cooking dinner in her Ash Flat home when her husband, Scott, who spent the day in and out of his shop in their home, noticed that their son, Conor, was nowhere to be seen.

Conor, then 6, had managed to get out of the house a couple of times before but never went very far, Roxanne said. This time, he was two houses down and making his way toward the nearby road. The couple immediately ran after him.

“With him, if you’re running after him, it’s chase, so it’s funny: ‘Yay! They’re chasing me!’” Roxanne said. “So he turns around and keeps on running, and he’s laughing the whole way. And it doesn’t matter. You say, ‘Stop!’ You say, ‘No!’ You say, ‘Come back!’ You are crying. He doesn’t pick up on that. I mean, I was screaming as loud as I could possibly scream.”

He ran blindly into the road, and the couple witnessed two cars pass by Conor. He was within feet of getting hit. Now a sign that reads “Autistic Child Area” is located just before the turn onto the Dailys’ street. Conor was diagnosed with autism at age 2 1/2.

Roxanne and her family are working to raise $25,000 for a service dog that will assist Conor, 7, with distractions from overstimulating environments, communication and more. The family has partnered with Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, a Virginia-based nonprofit that trains and provides service dogs for those with autism, diabetes, seizure disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the Mayo Clinic, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs communication and interaction, and its symptoms and severity vary from person to person. Conor’s autism affects his social interaction and communication. Conor also has apraxia of speech, which creates difficulties producing sounds and words, and sensory processing issues.

By the time Conor was 18 months, much of the personality he had at 11 to 12 months disappeared, said Roxanne, a stay-at-home mother who also has a 6-year-old daughter named Kasyn. His love of playing with the family dogs disappeared, and he no longer happily looked at himself in the mirror to say “Bubba” or “Da Da.”

Looking back, Roxanne said, there were obvious signs that Conor might have autism before his official diagnosis, but at the time, she wasn’t sure because he was her first child. Conor had an autism screening at 18 months, during which doctors asked questions about Conor’s eye contact, speech development and more.

“When she asked that stuff, I just went, ‘He’s not doing any of that. Wait a minute,’” Roxanne said.

Roxanne said doctors figured he was delayed because he was a premature baby, born at 2 pounds, 6 ounces. She also figured that his development was related to nervous-system issues as a result of prematurity, but deep down, “a mom always knows,” she said.

“That’s really what I was hoping for, or at the very most, Asperger’s,” she said. “But it still hurt whenever they told me they were going to give him an autism diagnosis.”

Roxanne said the diagnosis was beneficial and helped Conor have access to various therapies. Since he was 3 1/2, Conor has received at least 21 hours of therapy a week — at one point, 40 hours a week — including applied behavior analysis therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy. Therapy helps Conor learn life skills, such as dressing himself.

“Parents: You’re the advocate. You’re the voice, especially when they can’t speak for themselves,” Roxanne said. “If I’m not going to stand up for him, then who is? Who is going to try to get him what he deserves and what he needs the most?”

Conor’s diagnosis has also helped the family learn to be less selfish and celebrate each joy in life, she added. One day, when Conor was dropped off at school, he gave Roxanne his typical hug and kiss goodbye. But on this particular day, he turned back around and demonstrated an improvement in his speech progress.

“He grabbed both my arms and looked me right in the eyes, and he said, ‘I love you, Mommy,’” she said. “I just wanted to boohoo because that was huge.”

After the Easter Sunday incident, Roxanne thought back to a video she had seen months before of a service dog helping a young boy. She reached out to Service Dogs of Warren Retrievers and was able to speak with the founder about Conor’s diagnosis and cases of him leaving home and running toward the street.

For more than a year, Conor’s service dog will be trained and then brought to Ash Flat. For the first two months, the dog will simply bond and play with Conor, and the trainer will return periodically to check in on the relationship between Conor and the dog. Roxanne said the organization she chose is unique because others that she researched required the entire family to travel out of state to receive the dog.

“It’s his own personalized service dog,” she said. “They find out where we’re going to be going, where we regularly go, what we regularly do, and they expose the dog to those situations. They find out what [Conor’s] needs are.”

The family is fundraising for the $25,000 to be given to Service Dogs of Warren Retrievers, and in return, the organization gives the family the service dog, which will either be a golden retriever or a Labrador. In April, a glow run was held in the community to raise money for the cause. According to the organization’s website, the family has raised nearly half of its goal.

“It’s times like these that I am so thankful that I live in a small town,” Roxanne said.

Roxanne hopes the full amount will be raised by the end of the year. Even after the family receives the service dog, the Dailys would like to hold a glow run fundraiser each year and continue to raise money for the organization.

“I hope that every year we will have someone in our community or surrounding communities that needs a service dog so that we can help them fundraise for one,” she said.

Roxanne said the service dog will also benefit the other children who attend Conor’s therapies and will allow the Daily family to spend more time outdoors. She also said the dog will likely help Conor feel more independent.

“Eventually, it’ll get to the point where I don’t have to worry about him running away because that dog will be able to help with that,” she said. “There’s going to be some peace where I don’t feel like I’m on high alert.”

Roxanne said an autism diagnosis is not a punishment or the worst thing that could happen to an individual or family. She said she encourages families to take advantages of the opportunities that children have available through an autism diagnosis.

“I think that Conor will have a bond with this dog that he can’t have with anyone else — unsolicited love,” she said. “He doesn’t have to earn it. He doesn’t have to do anything for it, and he will be able to love on this dog — and probably be loved on. I think we’re going to see awesome things because he’ll have more freedom than he’s had before.”

For more information or to donate to the family’s efforts, visit sdwr.org, gp to the Donate tab, click Personal Campaigns and search for “Roxanne Daily”; or make checks payable to Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers (SDWR) ‘Roxanne Daily,’ P.O. Box 647 Madison, VA 22727.

Staff writer Syd Hayman can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or shayman@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Syd Hayman can be reached at 501-244-4342 or shayman@arkansasonline.com.