Written By Halea Lingerfelt | Photography by Halea Lingerfelt and Kara Hudgens Photography Co.
Many see the needs around them but never put actions to their desire to help. In 2010, Mike and Suzy and a few other individuals saw a large need in their community and decided to help those who had nearly given their all to our country. With a vision and a strong desire to change lives, Smoky Mountain Service Dogs organization was established.
What started as two puppy labrador retrievers and a few volunteers has grown into the only 501(c)(3) nonprofit, accredited Assistance Dogs International organization headquartered in Tennessee and the surrounding 12 states that utilizes nearly 100 volunteers. Smoky Mountain Service Dogs is an organization dedicated to serving those who so bravely gave to our country and have sacrificed physically or psychologically that now need mobility assistance in their daily lives. SMSD is dedicated to one simple goal: “To enhance the physical and psychological quality of life for wounded Veterans by providing custom trained mobility assistance service dogs (at no cost to the Veteran).”
On July 20, 2017, the organization “Passed the Leash” to their 20th Veteran recipient and their second female Veteran to receive a canine companion. The process of training and receiving a dog from SMSD is a labor of love and quite a diligent process. Dogs are trained by world-renowned canine program manager, Heather Wilkerson. Her experience includes training police dogs and working extensively on search and rescue missions all over the world. Lead trainer, Susan Randall, and staff trainer, Cassie Krause, complete the list of the only paid employees in the organization. The SMSD business model allows 95% of all donations to go directly towards fulfilling the mission of enhancing lives of those they serve. In the 1800-2500 hours and $25,000 it takes to train a dog for service to a veteran, nearly 100 sets of hands will have worked with each dog to ensure they are ready to aid their new warrior. The extensive application process is open to any Veteran that qualifies for mobility assistance. SMSD founder, Mike Kitchens, said the organization is happy to have aided many Veterans in East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and Kentucky. “When we began this organization, I was amazed to see that there were so many Veterans who needed help right in our backyard.”
How can you be a part of this life-changing organization? SMSD is kicking off their campaign, “More Wags for Warriors,” in October at their Annual “Night for Patriots” fundraising event that will be held this year at The Venue in Lenoir City. This extremely patriotic night will include dinner, a silent auction and testimonials from those who have experienced firsthand the life-changing effects that are results of a mobility assistance service dog from SMSD. Special guests will be Wayne and Deby Kyle, parents of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle. They have recently presented the organization with a $225,000 donation as the 2017 recipient of the Chris Kyle Memorial Benefit. This money will be used to help jump-start the building of the new SMSD Veteran/Canine Training Center on the organization’s existing training grounds in Lenoir City located off of Highway 321. The new facility will include a state-of-the-art 18-dog kennel, grooming area, food prep area, medical/exam room and a 3500 sq. ft. Veteran Training area. This new facility will allow SMSD to double the number of severely wounded Veterans served annually. Volunteers are always needed for simple tasks such as raising funds or being a weekend helper with dogs in training.
Smoky Mountain Service Dogs organization is a reminder that dogs and desires to better our community can successfully go hand in hand. One dog and one Veteran at a time, lives and the legacy of them can be changed forever. For more information about SMSD, how to apply for a mobility assistance service dog, how to volunteer or how to buy tickets for this year’s Night of Patriots Annual Fundraiser, visit www.smokymountainservicedogs.org