[Editor’s note: These are the facts as I have them. I welcome any response or rebuttal from Pepsi, Global Giving, or Animals for Autism. That would actually be a nice change.]
This is a story about ten families who had no idea they were about to be joined together in a most unexpected way.
These families lived all across our country, from Washington to Florida and scattered across the states in between. These families had different jobs and roles in our community. Some were military, some were ministers, some were students. But as different as these families were, they shared two very important things in common.
1. Each family included a child on the autism spectrum.
2. Each family was desperate to find a way to provide a service dog to keep that child safe.
A service dog can be life-changing for a family living on the autism spectrum.
Our service dogs provide a physical and emotional anchor for children with autism. With their child tethered to a service dog, families feel they are newly freed to engage in activities as simple as shopping at the mall. On the streets, parents are relieved of the worry their child might run away. In many cases, the service dog accompanies the child to school, where its calming presence can minimize and often eliminate emotional outbursts, enabling the child to more fully participate. Transitioning among school day activities is eased and the service dog provides a focus through which the child can interact with other children. This helps increase the opportunity for the child to develop social and language skills.
~ Autism Service Dogs of America
Most service dog organizations require families to provide a donation of $13,000 – $15,000. While that still doesn’t cover all of the costs that go into training a service dog, it is nearly impossible for a spectrum family to even dream of coming up with that kind of donation.
Then one spring day, each family heard through the grapevine that a service dog organization (run by a family who had a daughter on the spectrum) was going to be competing for a Pepsi Refresh Everything grant for $50,000. And if they were successful, they would be placing TEN service dogs for FREE!!
Even without all of their many press releases, word gets around in the autism community. These ten families did everything in their power and then some to get the votes needed for AFA to win the $50,000 grant. Because even if these families weren’t selected as recipients, it was a beautiful thing AFA was doing and they would literally be saving lives. These families were committed and were more than happy to power vote ten times per day, collect codes, and bug their friends and family members to vote, vote, vote.
And they did it!
AFA was awarded a grant for $50,000 so they could place ten free service dogs.
A month later, the ten recipients were announced and suddenly these ten families were connected.
For better or worse. Keep reading.
When the recipients were announced in July along with a picture of their matched puppies, each family was overwhelmingly honored and grateful for what this meant to their family. A lifeline had been thrown in the form of a tether to a Siberian Husky.
Each family grew to love that little face in the pictures. They couldn’t wait for more pictures or updates.
August came and brought with it the update that the Pepsi grant paperwork had been changed. They were now going to be covering the cost of a new facility and supplies. But the families weren’t worried because AFA explained that this would allow AFA to cover the training costs of the Pepsi Pups.
September brought pictures of the newly renovated facility. While the families were excited to see where the puppies would be trained and readied to be brought home, they couldn’t help being disappointed that there were no pictures of the puppies.
October came. The ten families were getting a little antsy to see how the pups were growing. Some were wondering about financial contributions made by generous donors to help them reach their goal of having a service dog (they began even before the Pepsi grant). E-mails were sent. Facebook messages were posted. Questions were asked.
And then October went. With no response from AFA.
Little knots began to form in the stomachs of these parents.
November came. These ten families who were so thrilled and hopeful began to become nervous and worried.
No information was available. None.
Some phone calls were made to the number listed as AFA’s number. It turned out to be a mobile phone. Oh someone answered, alright, and smoothed things over, painting somewhat elaborate pictures of computer viruses and internet access problems.
It almost sounded reasonable.
Until the families started digging. And what did they find?
They found ads on Ebay and puppy sites attempting to sell the very same puppies promised as service dogs. Ads like this one
They found data in the only provided pictures of the Pepsi Pups that showed the pictures were taken in 2007.
They found that Siberian Huskies are a very unlikely choice for a service dog.
They found that it is statistically impossible to have a group of ten puppies and every single one of them is of just the right temperament to begin training. And even more impossible for every single one of those puppies to make it through training.
Families who had begun the program before the Pepsi grant was announced found that financial contributions had been made on their behalf and AFA never told them about it.
They found that despite repeated promises of acquiring nonprofit status, AFA never even applied for it.
They found that the Tax ID provided by AFA does not in fact belong to AFA.
They found that AFA has gone by different names.
They found that the owners have gone by several names.
They found that the e-mail contact has changed several times.
They found that there had never actually been any service dogs placed for actual clients.
They found that when questions were raised with Pepsi, Pepsi pointed to Global Giving.
They found that when questions were raised with Global Giving, they pointed back to Pepsi.
They found that, apparently, $50,000 is chump change to Pepsi and Pepsi/Global Giving doesn’t care at all as long as they don’t get their names muddied up in a mess. “Just work it out,” they say to these pesky special needs families.
So these pesky special needs families took their concerns to the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General of Illinois.
December came and with it the Better Business Bureau’s deadline for AFA to address the concerns of the families.
Lo and Behold! A Christmas miracle occurred and internet was restored the day before the deadline.
AFA apologized but only on behalf of their villainous internet provider.
Then they posted “updated pics of the pups.” They never assigned identities to these dogs. The families who have been so incredibly desperate for information for six months are left wondering and guessing. It can’t even be determined if these are the same dogs from the 2007 pictures or if there are even 10 different dogs accounted for.
And the pictures? I swear you could hear Sarah McLachlan singing in the background
. The dogs’ condition was questionable enough that the album was shared on a lady’s animal rescue page! The kennel definitely does not look like Pepsi’s $50,000 was spent there.
So where DID the money go?
And where are these highly trained service dogs that were so specifically trained at FIVE months that AFA could not possibly refund one of the family’s money when they grew too uncomfortable with the lack of information and general shadiness of the organization?
And why is it so difficult to provide a picture of the dogs training? Or a picture of the dogs in a group? How do we know they aren’t the same 3-4 dogs pictured on different colored blankets?
If it really truly is a matter of internet access, PICK UP THE PHONE! Send a postcard! They have the addresses for the families. The families could send a self-addressed, stamped envelope if it’s really all that difficult.
The families have never been contacted concerning training needs. NOT ONCE. The family who asked to be allowed to visit to see things in person got a major runarond because it just wouldn’t be convenient. All this despite what their website claims. Oh right. I forgot. Their website disappeared from the internet as soon as concerns were raised.
This story is Not. Over. It can’t be.
Because there are ten families with children who are just a prayer and a blessing away from being one of those heartbreaking stories on the 6:00 news.
Because the autism community sticks together. You mess with one of us and you’re messing with all of us. And despite the circumstances of these families meeting, they are connected and bonded in a most unusual way and will continue to support one another for many years to come.
Because there are ten beautiful and amazing children with autism who have been told they are getting a dog.
Because despite what Pepsi and Global Giving suggest, we will not just go away and be quiet.
Because we will not stand for people who prey on the desperate fears of special needs families.
Please visit http://animalsforautism.com if you are interested in information about finding a reputable service dog organization. That’s not a typo. One of the families involved has been inspired to aid families in their search for service dog information and very cleverly bought a familiar domain name to redirect (redirect = rescue) traffic.