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Lia honored for work with Patriot Assistance Dogs

Sandy Lia, at right, with close friend Nettie Momb (center), a resident at Ecumen-Emmanuel Nursing Home, and Nettie’s daughter Linda Wiedewitsch, trainer and founder of the Patriot Assistance Dogs (P.A.D.) program, along with P.A.D. service dog Zoey. Lia, the fund development director at Ecumen, was recently honored for her volunteer work with the P.A.D. program. VICKI GERDES/DL NEWSPAPERS

In her work as the fund development coordinator at Ecumen-Detroit Lakes, Sandy Lia often spends much of her time planning and coordinating publicity campaigns, fundraisers, and other special events for Ecumen.

So when Patriot Assistance Dogs (P.A.D.) program founder and trainer Linda Wiedewitsch was looking for a way to honor the program’s first-year graduating teams in 2012, Lia offered to help.

“The veterans (who were graduating with their service dogs) didn’t want to make a big deal of it — they wanted something informal,” Wiedewitsch said. “Sandy came up with the idea to hold a ceremony in the Veterans Memorial Park.

“It was a perfect fit for our veterans to graduate in that gorgeous park.”

After suggesting the venue for the event, Lia went one step further, and helped plan the event itself.    “She designed the flyer, wrote the letter asking for the community’s support, and hooked me up with the Chamber to get their mailing lists,” Wiedewitsch added.

Lia also extended special invitations to everyone from Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk to U.S. Congressman Collin Peterson to attend the inaugural “Serving Those Who Served” graduation ceremony, held in September 2012.

“She put together such a wonderful event that it made it easy for me to follow up for the 2013 ceremony,” Wiedewitsch said. “That’s why I wanted to acknowledge her, because she’s been a huge part of this program.”

So at the conclusion of the 2013 “Serving Those Who Served” graduation ceremony on Sept. 29, Wiedewitsch informed the audience that they had one more award to give, and called Lia up to the podium.

Lia’s jaw dropped, as she leaned toward her husband Andy and asked, “Did you know about this?” He shook his head and said, “No.”

Lia then walked up to the podium, where her stepson Craig — a member of the P.A.D. program’s board of directors — was standing next to Wiedewitsch, and asked him the same thing. He also answered, “No.”

It was then that Wiedewitsch presented Lia with a framed certificate of appreciation, honoring her for her support of the Patriot Assistance Dogs.

“I didn’t expect it, honestly,” Lia said. “I was caught completely off guard.”

She was, nevertheless, quite honored.

“I’m pretty proud of this award,” Lia admitted, noting that she had joked with her husband Andy about clearing a space on the wall for her to put it, amidst the various honors he has received in his nearly 40-year tenure as “The Voice of the Lakers” on KDLM Radio.

“I told him, ‘Move on over,’” she laughed, but added, a little more soberly, that she’s inspired by her husband every day.

“He’s the most inspiring person in my life,” she added.

But he’s not her only source of inspiration, Lia said, adding philosophically, “Every day of my life, I’m inspired by the people I work with, and especially by the residents (at Ecumen).”

Another source of inspiration is Wiedewtsch, and the work she does with the Patriot Assistance Dogs — which Lia has witnessed first-hand.

Her stepson Craig was among the first-year graduates of the program, which was how Lia initially became involved.

First-hand experience

An Iraq War veteran, Craig Lia was suffering from the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when he returned to Minnesota.

His life and his marriage fell apart, as the effects of PTSD and a mild, war-related brain injury left him struggling.

Then, his stepmother Sandy called him to tell him about a new program in Detroit Lakes that used service dogs to help combat veterans suffering from PTSD and other ailments related to their military service.

“It was like a ray of hope,” Craig Lia said in a Detroit Lakes Tribune article that ran in September 2012.

After a series of meetings with Wiedewitsch in which he became acquainted with several dogs in the P.A.D. program, Lia was paired with Mason, a beautiful German shepherd, who eventually came home to live with him.

“Mason has totally changed his (Craig’s) life,” Sandy said.

In fact, Craig actually worked with Wiedewitsch for about a year at Lucky Dog Boarding & Training Center (where the P.A.D. training program is housed), though he left a couple of weeks ago for a new job in Rochester.

Through witnessing how much of a difference the dogs have made in the lives of their veterans, Lia said, she has become a passionate supporter of the program.

“To work with someone like Linda has inspired me so much,” she said. “I feel that the little I can do to give back is nothing compared to what I receive.”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454