Like other 9-year-old girls, Kelsi Weaver is a Justin Bieber fan, watches "Sponge Bob" and "Good Luck Charlie," and is a self-professed "movie fanatic." She carries a purple backpack and wears glittery light-up tennis shoes.
This Miracle League ball player may have cerebral palsy and use a wheelchair, but that doesn't stop her from enjoying life to the fullest. She rides horses through Easter Seals' Ride With Pride program in Wheeling and participates in everything her classmates at Martins Ferry's Ayers Elementary School do - including recently jumping rope with the help of aide Paula Riethmiller.
"She will try anything," Riethmiller said.
Kelsi Weaver, 9, of Martins Ferry is looking foward to receiving a therapy dog through Assistance Dogs of America. A fundraiser for the organization will take place March 22 at Undo's Benwood.
Kayla Fogle gives Kelsi Weaver, seated, a hug at Ayers Elementary School.
Kelsi's can-do spirit is one reason why she is a good candidate to receive a therapy dog through Assistance Dogs of America Inc. The dog will be trained to help Kelsi become more independent at home.
During an interview in Swanton, near Toledo, where the organization is based, Kelsi demonstrated her enthusiasm and her ability to give commands to Sammy, a trained golden retriever.
"She did a great job. She interacted very well and responded to the dog," said Jenny Barlos, Assistance Dogs of America client services director.
50/50 tickets are available for purchase at Martins Ferry Ayers Elementary School.
Her hair in pigtails and her eyes shining brightly through purple-framed glasses sitting slightly crooked on her face, Kelsi talked at school Thursday about what getting a therapy dog would mean to her.
"I'm really excited. He'll help me with opening doors and picking stuff up and balancing, stuff like that," she said. "I just think it's really cool to have a dog like this and I'm so excited."
Kelsi's mother said Dr. Ellen Kitts at Easter Seals in Wheeling, where Kelsi receives therapy, suggested contacting Assistance Dogs of America because she had seen its success with another client.
"I think it's going to be wonderful for her to be more independent and help her with her therapy," mom Tami Weaver said.
Kelsi is on the waiting list, and it could take 18 to 24 months before the right match is found and trained, Barlos said. The nonprofit organization trains 16 to 20 Labrador or golden retrievers a year, based on the donations it receives.
After receiving basic housetraining and socialization through a foster family, the dogs are trained in service capacities by inmates at Toledo Correctional Institution for about a year. Dogs usually are ready for their final training when they are 2. Trainers teach them commands for the specific clients the dogs will serve. The trained dog, with a value of $18,000, according to Barlos, is then provided at no cost to the client.
Roger Weaver, Kelsi's grandfather, is impressed with the tailor-made training process.
"They'll come to the house and see exactly what (Kelsi) needs. Then they'll train the dog specific to her needs," he said.
For example, Kelsi's dog will be able to open and close doors for her, retrieve items and serve as a stabilizer for her when she transfers herself from her wheelchair to a chair or bed.
"The goal right now is to really increase her independence around her home," Barlos said. "And plus give her a dog who is a really great companion for her."
To raise money for Assistance Dogs on behalf of Kelsi, the West Liberty University Student Education Association is hosting a celebrity server night from 5-9 p.m. Tuesday, March 22 at Undo's Benwood.
"The education club needs to do service projects, so I thought it would just be a fantastic project to do not only for our club but for Kelsi because I just think she absolutely deserves it," said Ali Stipetich, club treasurer.
For information about Assistance Dogs, visit www.adai.org or call 419-825-3622.
ABOUT THE DOGS
Assistance Dogs of America Inc.'s mission is "to help children and adults with disabilities achieve greater independence by training and placing service and therapy dogs to assist with the individual's daily needs."
Based in Swanton, Ohio, the group trains only Labrador and golden retriever puppies, or mixes of the two, because of their innate abilities to fetch and return items, as well as their gentle temperaments and good reputation in society. The puppies come from shelters, from owners who can't care for them or from breeders who want to donate to the cause.
Foster families provide basic training in household behavior and socialization until the dogs are 1. Then, inmates at the Toledo Correctional Institution train the dogs in the specific areas needed to be therapy or service dogs.
Finally, around the age of 2, the dogs are returned to the Assistance Dogs of America facility, where they receive their final few months of training that is tailored to the needs of their soon-to-be owners.