Hundreds of children are living a better quality of life because of a brave decision Karen Shirk made 20 years ago.
Shirk had a difficult and frustrating firsthand experience while trying to adopt a service dog. The system was, and still is in many places, flawed. So after adopting her first service dog, Ben, whom she would find training for herself, the duo took matters into their own hands — and paws — to be exact.
In 1998, Shirk founded the nonprofit organization 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia. What humbly started with two dogs in a one-bedroom apartment has grown to be a model program for organizations training and matching service dogs.
“Oftentimes children with disabilities contact agencies that place service dogs only to be told they are “too disabled” or “not disabled enough” and are turned down. Additionally, parents trying to find service dogs for their children quickly discover that many agencies will not place service dogs with children,” according to the 4 Paws website. “Karen dreamed of a place where applicants for service dogs were not judged based on severity of disability and set out to start her own organization.”
“What better job? Surrounded by dogs and helping others find freedom from ‘dis’ because no one is really ‘dis’abled. We just do things differently,” Shirk said.
Shirk was even a CNN Hero of the Year in 2008. The entertainment giant Netflix filmed an episode of its hit series “DOGS” at 4 Paws in November. The organization is a hub of positivity in the region and Shirk is our Daytonian of the Week.
What led to you founding 4 Paws for Ability? Did you think it would become what it has today?
🐾 “I founded 4 Paws when I couldn’t get anyone to give me a service dog because I was vent (ventilator) dependent. They said they wanted to give their dogs to people with a better prognosis, who would be more likely to return to work. Really, they said that! Look at what I did with my service dog, Ben! I founded 4 Paws with two dogs 20 years ago. I never even imagined it would be all this today.”
You were a CNN Hero of the Year in 2008! That is simply amazing. What was that experience like?
🐾 “I was so honored to be a CNN Hero and to be Daytonian of the Week, now. I guess I can see that what I did was amazing, but to me it saved me. It’s been my passion and joy in life. I had lost everything, and my service dogs I’ve had through the years and being a part of this agency gave me a life I could never have imagined! Being chosen for these is humbling. The kids and veterans who get our dogs ... they are my heroes.”
What does it mean to you to see children finally getting help they’ve needed and seeing their lives improved?
🐾 “It means more to me than anyone could ever imagine. My service dogs saved my life. I’m on my third service dog now. Seeing the joy in the kids’ faces makes my life on earth a good one. It’s what keeps me going when things are tough. I live for the first day of class because I remember the first time I dropped something and Ben handed it back to me. The freedom it brought to me. Knowing we give that freedom to children, families, and veterans is amazing.”
Your organization seems like the staff and volunteers are just so invested and passionate for the cause. What went into building a strong and passionate team like 4 Paws?
🐾 “Our staff and volunteers are family. When you build a community around doing good and love — and of course cute puppies — you get passion!”
I LOVED the 4 Paws episode of ‘DOGS’! What did that mean to you and your team to be featured in a Netflix special?
🐾 “I was so proud when Netflix contacted me wanting to do a story on our agency. Once we identified a class and decided on a few families, we knew it would be amazing, but it far exceeded anything I envisioned. They did such a great job showing exactly what we see, every class.”
What do you like about living in Dayton? Have you felt like Dayton was a good place to grow your organization?
🐾 “I love this area! Personally, I love the MetroParks. But the best thing is the people. We have over 2,000 active volunteers and about 70 fantastic staff. The people who live here are amazing. Not just our volunteers and staff, but the businesses that support us, the people who donate, it’s just a very heartwarming place to live. I’m so glad I chose this area to grow our 4 Paws family!”