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ASISTA: using puppy love to help people with autism and PTSD
John Angionicolaitis is
not your typical college student. The
18-year old attends Vanier College full time, specializing in animal health,
works part-time in a veterinary clinic and is the co-founder of the ASISTA
Foundation; an organization that helps people with autism and PTSD by
partnering them up with a trained dog.
ASISTA was founded in 2012 after Angionicolaitis had started bringing his dog Trio to a class of autistic children at Mother Teresa High School. Angionicolaitis saw how much joy Trio brought to the students. However, when Trio got sick, he was faced with the decision to either euthanize him or pay to save his life. Angionicolaitis decided to save Trio’s life because he had brightened these children’s lives in many occasions. Therefore, he and his fellow co-founders decided to start ASISTA on that premise.
ASISTA currently has two programs running which provide help to people with autism and PTSD. The first program involves interaction: they bring dogs to classrooms with autistic students at Mother Teresa High School, allowing the students to interact with the dog. Angionicolaitis says this is beneficial to the students because it calms them down and eases tension levels. “Not all eyes are on you but they’re on the dog,” he says. “The dog’s not there to judge; the dog’s there as a friend, as a companion and someone you can just be there with. It builds a confidence level, it builds a reassurance level, and it also diminishes stress which makes everything so much better for everyone.” At this time, ASISTA has eight different dogs that participate in this program, allowing students to interact with the one they like the most.
ASISTA is also in the early stages of their second program which involves training dogs and offering them as companions for life to people with autism or PTSD. The whole process begins with ASISTA rescuing a dog and having it trained for a year. The dog is then partnered up with a host who either suffers from autism or PTSD. Angionicolaitis says that dogs are offered to these hosts free of charge. All they ask for in return is a donation and that the host covers all basic costs such as food and basic medical costs. These dogs are given a status similar to Mira dogs. ASISTA has a partnership with the cities of Laval and Montreal that allows these dogs in public places where dogs are not usually permitted.
Unfortunately for Angionicolaitis and ASISTA, they have to be selective when it comes to choosing hosts. Only one person has been partnered up so far, and ASISTA has three more dogs in waiting and ready to assist a host. Angionicolaitis hopes that, in time, they’ll be able to service more people.
Angionicolaitis says the entire process of partnering a dog with a host costs them approximately $2,000, but they are able to stay afloat due to their many donors. Angionicolaitis says they receive donations from big corporations as well as many anonymous donations; any money received is put to work back into the foundation.
So what’s next for ASISTA? Angionicolaitis says the organization has a mandate with the Canadian government to conduct a study involving soldiers with PTSD, and hopefully they’ll soon meet with parliament. Angionicolaitis is also in contact with entrepreneur Kevin O’Leary, and is hopeful that O’Leary will be able to help them out increase their stock so they can assist more people.
“Our mission is basically for the community to help us so we can help others,” says Angionicolaitis, with a big smile on his face. “At the end we don’t do it for the money, we do it more to help the people. The more that we can help, the better it is. If it means that we made a little difference in that person’s life, then we’ve accomplished our goal. That’s why we do it.”
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