Wide-ranging support for people with disabilities

Training service dogs for people with disabilities

Betty Severson’s service dog Gibson, a friendly black lab who she calls “a little bit of a goofball,” at first helped her with walking and balance. But before long, Gibson has proved to be so much more.

“I have an insulin pump that goes off when my sugar is too high or too low,” Betty said. “If I don't hear it, he will hear it and let me know. At nighttime, he sleeps by my bed on the side, on the floor, and a couple times he's gotten on the bed and just kind of wakes me up. And sure enough, my sugar had been low and I had to check it out.”

Gibson also helps her with picking things off the floor, and even pulling laundry out of the dryer — tasks that can be a challenge for Betty.

Oftentimes, when people see someone with a service dog, they might not fully understand the critical role these animals can play. At United Disabilities Services Foundation (UDSF) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, these trained dogs are not just pets, or nice-to-have companions, but rather an important part of their clients’ medical care and overall wellness.

By helping clients expand their range of capabilities with everyday tasks — both at home and out in the world — these service dogs are able to make their lives more fulfilling.

The UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Pennsylvania provided a $180,000 investment to UDSF to support aging and disability services across the state, including support for service dog training. With 1 in 4 Pennsylvanians having a disability, this investment helps empower this community to live fuller, richer lives.

“The partnership with UDSF is really important to us because we work together with them to continue to innovate and identify ways to improve the quality of services for individuals,” said Blair Boroch, CEO of the UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Pennsylvania. “They have tremendous resources, experience and knowledge of local resources and we are able to work with them to bring best practices and experience we've had across the country to make the program as strong as possible here in Pennsylvania.”

UDSF has been a mainstay in the Lancaster community for decades, and their reach of services extends beyond Lancaster County. Their Resource Center, also funded with the recent grant from UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Pennsylvania, connects people with disabilities to needed resources, whether that is help with in-person medical care, employment services, mobility equipment and much more.

“The grant has allowed us also to expand into creating wellness calls now for people in isolation,” said Bill Kepner, CEO of United Disabilities Services Foundation. “So those monies, besides sustaining the program, have really helped it in terms of some enhanced services, and we love that.”

The grant also helps fund their longstanding Challenger Football and Cheerleading Program which allows any young person with disabilities to engage in football or cheerleading, no matter what their abilities at no cost.

The diverse programs at UDSF are geared to create more independence and richer lives for the people they serve – people who still face stigma and barriers in daily living. And often, this empowerment is no more evident than through the unique relationship of a client and their service dog.

Jenn King, an ambassador for UDSF who goes into the community to share the stories of these dogs and the organization, said she sees the impact they make every day.

“The level of independence that our dogs are giving is just beautiful,” Jen said. “And when you see the bond created between the dog and the person, it’s priceless.”

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