Working to make a Wilderwood dream a reality

It took nine months but Heather Wright of Maryville has rallied friends, family, church members and the community and raised the $10,000 needed to get a Wilderwood Service Dog for her autistic 5-year-old son, Gabriel.

Now Wright and the members of St. Paul Lutheran Church are hoping to raise the final $250 needed to cover the cost of a special harness for the dog through the congregation’s Wednesday night Advent offerings in the services leading up to Christmas.

Blount Today first chronicled the Wright’s desire for a service dog to help Gabriel in June. Since then, Heather Wright has helped organize a variety of fundraisers at her church and in the community, from a candle sale in the spring, to a yard sale and a car wash in the summer to the Oktoberfest event at St. Paul Lutheran Church. She also helped set up a Halloween carnival at Starbucks in Maryville as well as a book sale earlier this month at Broadway United Methodist Church.

“We raised enough for the dog at the end of the book sale and the last bit is for the harness,” she said. “We have the money for the dog! The money from the Advent services will go to pay for $250 fee for the harness, and then we’re done.”

She said Gabriel’s dog is set to graduate in Fall of 2011. “I don’t have an official notice, but we should be in the graduating class of Fall, 2011.”

Wright said she appreciated everyone who helped her family reach their goal. “Every night, every weekend, every moment that I have not been with Gabriel in therapy or at work has been spent fundraising the last nine months,” she said.

Wright said she and her family had their doubts they would be able to raise the money in a year. “I looked and said, ‘By the grace of God, we are going to be able to do this. This has to be exactly what we are meant to do, or we wouldn’t have gotten it done. I said, ‘OK, God, your will be done. If it is your will, you’re going to have to do it,’ and He did it,” she said.

Wright thanked the members of her church and her family. “Our church has been so amazing. Every single person in that congregation has been supportive and understanding, and there is absolutely no way I could have done it without them,” she said. “My family -- we’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve held each up, and said, ‘There’s no way,’ and then we would say, ‘Yes, there is.’ We’ve really been there for each other.”

Wright also said her co-workers support has been invaluable. “There were days things were tough, and they talked me through it,” he said. “I don’t think you can get through any kind of journey like this without friends.”

Wright was also quick to recognize her friend Jennifer Tipton of Morristown. “Her son, Hunter, was accepted into the program a week before mine was and she has been my rock. There’s no way, mentally, I would’ve gotten through this without her and all of the amazing people who have come from the community,” she said.

Wright said one 14-year-old girl responded to the Blount Today story on Gabriel and took it upon herself to help. “She made wooden blocks, painted them and put Bible verses on them and sold them. This is a 14-year-old kid who responded out of the blue,” Wright said. “She raised $425 with wood blocks.”

Wright said the whole experience has been amazing and helped her see how good people can be. “You see people in the news doing horrible things to each other, and then you meet a 14-year-old kid like that, and what do you say?” she said.

Wright said she has been in contact with Maryville College professors who are doing research on how autistic children and service dogs work with one another. “I’m hoping through that, that I can give back what’s been given to us,” she said.

Blount Today photographer Leslie Karnowski was at the Oktoberfest for Gabriel carnival held Oct. 23 at St. Paul Lutheran Church and captured these images.

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