IS members represent nonprofits, foundations, and corporations engaged in every kind of charitable endeavor, with missions that reflect the nearly infinite ways of working for the common good. New member BluePath Service Dogs trains and places autism service dogs that offer safety, companionship, and opportunities for independence.
We talked with Michelle Brier, co-founder and vice president of marketing and development, about their work over the past three years to change the world, one dog at a time.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your career path and how you arrived at your present position.
MB: I’ve had some incredible professional opportunities. I spent eight years at a mid-size national nonprofit, developing my knowledge and skillset in business, marketing, and fundraising while deepening my affinity for the human-animal bond. I ran a capital campaign at a community nature center while dragons and tortoises hung out in my office. I worked in a strategy role for the American Red Cross — relishing time with brilliant, passionate co-workers while contributing to projects with large-scale impact.
BluePath has been one of my greatest adventures. Our service dogs help children with autism who are prone to wandering or elopement behaviors. They keep children safe and empower entire families to live fuller and happier lives. One of my two partners, Caroline McCabe-Sandler, ran our program under the umbrella of another nonprofit for eight years. She transformed countless lives. When that organization made the choice to move in a different direction, it left a tremendous gap in vital services for the autism community, which continues to face diagnoses at an epidemic scale.
Founding BluePath with Caroline, her husband, and our CEO, Dr. Jody Sandler, certainly involved an enormous amount of thoughtful planning and due diligence. However, my own personal leap required little contemplation: my current role feels like a calling, one I am honored to be part of every single day.
Q. Was there a day at BluePath you remember that was extraordinary?
MB: We celebrated our third birthday in December and our extraordinary moments have ranged from big to small. I still remember the first time I saw a BluePath magnet on a car that didn’t belong to our staff or one of my family members! It was very exciting when we partnered with the New York Rangers to launch the very first “service dog hockey pup,” a trend that has since been emulated throughout the NHL.
A favorite moment was when we placed one of our first service dogs with a family whose son, Matthew, is highly impacted by autism. Matthew had become accustomed to life with a service dog and returned to dangerous bolting behaviors when his dog sadly passed away. When Matt received Benni, he was once again able to travel safely, reducing stress for his entire family. Benni has since brought so much joy into their lives. If we hadn’t started BluePath, this family would not have had another option. Our work is so important.
Q. What are some of the challenges your organization faces and how have you responded to them?
MB: There’s very high demand for our services and we need to grow quickly in a competitive development landscape. We must be efficient, nimble, and flexible in wearing the many hats that a small organization requires. We have a long way to go, but I’m infinitely proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.
Q. Describe some of the programs or services BluePath Service Dogs offers.
MB: At our core is the provision of service dogs to families with children with autism, free of charge. Nancy Flaherty, mother to a daughter with autism, recently shared this testimonial. I think she beautifully touches upon the work we’re privileged to do every day.
“Kaitlin was nine when she first bolted from me and was almost hit by a car. Her bolting had become a big problem and I was overcome with worry and fear, wondering how I was going to protect her. As a result, autism began to imprison my family as we dreaded leaving the house.”
“We began to live life again when Kaitlin received her first service dog. He kept her safe and provided her with companionship and enhanced independence. Children thought it was cool to have such a special dog. They would stop the pair to say hello and ask questions, which lifted her spirits, as she was now communicating and building social skills.”
“We feel so blessed to have Chester as Kaitlin’s new service dog. It’s heartwarming to see her smile again after just a couple of weeks with Chester by her side and we are relieved she will once again be safe.”
“Chester gives our family the courage to stand up to autism and return to a sense of normalcy. There is no price to attach to a parent’s peace of mind that comes with an autism service dog. Quite frankly, BluePath saved our lives.”
Q. What is one of your favorite places to be in your community?
MB: As part of training, our service dogs visit local schools and work with children in a variety of classroom environments. Teachers incorporate the dogs into the curriculum, with the interactions facilitating invaluable awareness and understanding, while our dogs become acclimated to the sights and sounds of kids.
Each time I have the chance to attend a school visit, I’m reminded of the exponential impact of our dogs. Each dog we place will make a difference for a child, his or her immediate and extended family and their social circle, yet on the journey to fulfill their ultimate purpose, BluePath dogs touch so many lives in the wider community. Our work is timely, tangible, and far-reaching, and that is deeply fulfilling for me personally.
Q. Is there an unsung hero on your team you’d like to recognize? What makes this person special?
MB: Launching a startup nonprofit is no easy feat, but we are succeeding because we have the best team in the world! Everyone I work with – staff, volunteers, and supporters – they are all heroes.
Learn more about BluePath Service Dogs at https://www.bluepathservicedogs.org/.
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