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United Way lists ‘ordinary heroes’

Service dogs for veterans: The program was honored by the United Way.

As Becker County United Way Executive Director Luann Porter pointed out at the beginning of Thursday night’s Celebration of Heroes, everybody has it in them to be a hero to someone.

Sometimes, a hero doesn’t even have to be a person. For the first time ever, a United Way Everyday Hero Award was presented to a program — a program populated by four-legged companions that make all the difference in the lives of combat veterans who have been damaged mentally and emotionally by the aftereffects of war.

One of the three Everyday Hero Awards presented Thursday evening went to the Patriot Assistance Dogs (PAD) program.

Though PAD program founder and trainer Linda Wiedewitsch was also honored for her passion and dedication to the program, as she was quick to point out, “It’s not about me, it’s about them — it’s about these dogs and what they have done for us.”

A tearful Wiedewitsch added that she was deeply grateful for the support that the program had received from the community, which has allowed them to place seven dogs thus far, at no cost to the veterans.

“It’s truly amazing to see the difference that these dogs have made,” she added.

Honored by the United Way,Sue Braun

Wiedewitsch takes dogs that have been donated, rescued or surrendered to the Lucky Dog Boarding and Training Center, which is also an animal shelter, and trains them to work with combat veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and similar psychiatric disorders.

The dogs are then carefully paired with veterans in need of their assistance — veterans sometimes meet several dogs before finding “the right fit.”

But once that “right fit” is found, the results can be amazing.

“A huge part of this program is the bonds that develop between these dogs and their veterans,” Wiedewitsch said.

 “It’s really a win-win situation when we can rescue a dog and the dog can help rescue the veteran.”

While leading his companion, Frankie, out of the Holiday Inn after the presentation, one of the Patriot Dog owners said, “This dog saved my life.”

While the Patriot Dog presentation was one of the most moving moments of the evening, there were many more tears shed during the course of the night — tears of gratitude, and of love.

Also visibly moved by the presentation was Community Spirit Award recipient Al Ostby, who was honored for his work with the Lakes Crisis and Resource Center — which has encompassed more than 15,000 hours of volunteer service since May 2006.

“We all can be role models,” said Ostby, noting that everyone has “different talents and gifts” to offer as a volunteer. “Collectively we can accomplish great things.”

“I’m not usually at a loss for words, but… never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be up here, accepting this award,” said Sue Braun, who was the 2013 recipient of the Bob and Michelle Harris Award.

This memorial award, which was presented by the Harrises’ daughter, Heather Harris Bridgeman, is given annually to the person who most embodies the traits of “service to others, community involvement and a compassionate spirit.”

Braun, who works as a senior housing manager for Essentia Health-St. Mary’s, was honored for her part in founding the annual Street Faire at the Lakes celebration as well as her volunteer work with the United Way, Boys & Girls Club, Chamber of Commerce, Becker County Historical Society, Friends of Tamarac, Land of the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging, Becker County Senior Network Council, Holy Rosary Church, Rotary and many other community organizations.

Honored by the United Way, Ron Sprafka.

“This is a woman who truly believes in ‘service above self,’” Bridgeman said during the award presentation. “Community involvement is an important aspect of her life.”

“I can’t thank you all enough,” said Braun after accepting the award. “Working in this community has been an incredible experience.”

Thursday’s celebration also included some moments of humor as well.

Everyday Hero Award recipient Ron Sprafka accepted his award with a hearty “Bah, humbug!” — acting as Ebeneezer Scrooge, one of the characters he embodies when reading “The Christmas Carol” and other tales to spellbound audiences of students and staff during his regular visits to Rossman Elementary School in Detroit Lakes.

“He may have retired from teaching, but a true teacher never quits helping students,” said Mohs, who affectionately referred to Sprafka as “my son’s fifth grade teacher” when presenting the award to him.

“I sure do appreciate this award, so very much,” Sprafka said.

The third Everyday Hero recipient, Amy Erickson, was unable to attend the ceremony, so Rossman Elementary School Principal Sandy Nelson accepted it on her behalf.

Nelson noted that while she’s not actually a staff member at the school, Erickson is there volunteering so often that she almost seems like one.

“She is very deserving,” he added.

The Community Spirit-Business Award recipient was Sanford Health-Detroit Lakes.

“One of their mottos is ‘Building Tomorrow Today is a journey we travel together,’” said Mohs during the presentation. “Through Sanford Health’s generosity and the volunteer efforts of their employees, together they are making a difference in Becker County.”

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