August's MVP: Little dog, big heart

Most Valuable Pet award goes to Buddy, who touches the lives of those in need

Most Valuable Pet award goes to Buddy, who touches the lives of those in needAnyone who has ever struggled with mental illness knows just how much the smallest gestures can mean. How one understanding look, say, from the dark eyes of a tiny puffball with a wagging tail, can change everything.

Sarah Kaminskas was one such person. In February of last year, Kaminskas’ battles with brain chemistry-related illnesses, including depression, anxiety and ADHD, led to her to resign from the job she loved. She found herself seemingly lost after abandoning a career in education she’d built over the course of a lifetime.

For months, she drifted, still waging a daily war against her illness. Then, in June, a ray of brilliant sunlight in the form of a cuddly Bichpoo (half Bichon Frise, half poodle) named Buddy pierced the darkness and lit up Kaminskas’ world like nothing before. “He literally walked right up to me off the street,” wrote Kaminskas in an e-mail.
On the other end of Buddy’s leash was the dog’s owner’s daughter, whose plane was leaving for Pennsylvania within the hour. The daughter, seeing the instant rapport between Buddy and Kaminskas, asked if the dog might stay here in the Lowcountry.

“Buddy’s owner suffered complete dementia and sadly passed away two weeks after her daughter discovered her,” Kaminskas wrote. “Buddy and another dog were totally neglected. No dog food or water and no outside access to relieve themselves. I agreed to keep Buddy for the weekend before taking him to a local shelter; he’s been at my side ever since.”

Immediately, Kaminskas could feel that Buddy had a rare gift for helping those in need. “Buddy’s little spirit exudes such love and acceptance that when he sits on my lap or walks at my side, I can feel the positive energy flow,” she wrote. A part-time worker at the Beaufort County offices of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Kaminskas was encouraged to bring Buddy in and noted immediately the effect he had on those fighting their own illnesses.

“Buddy seems to know when a consumer (NAMI’s term for someone with a mental illness) is having a rough day,” she wrote. “He’ll go up to that person as if to say, ‘I’m here for you.’ I’ve seen people in crisis, crying in deep pain while holding Buddy in their arms and he just quietly absorbs the emotions. And folks have told me that they come to the Connection support group meetings knowing that Buddy will be there for comfort as they share difficult things.”

He has since become a fixture at NAMI, providing crucial help to those combating mental illness, whether it’s a playful nuzzle, a wet nose on the cheek or even just a small, furry reminder of a world beyond the hardships of mental illness.

While Buddy helps care for NAMI consumers in an unofficial capacity (NAMI as a national nonprofit organization does not recognize any dogs as NAMI therapy dogs), he is certainly no amateur. He aced PetCo’s Canine Good Citizenship test last winter, and has also passed the International Therapy Dog Certification. That’s a pretty good resume for a pooch.

And Buddy isn’t about to stop now. Kaminskas hopes to introduce Buddy to several new groups in need of his gentle loving help.

“I’m hoping to take him regularly to Carolina House in Bluffton,” she wrote. “He’s also waiting to be placed on the list for Beaufort Memorial Hospital, so he can visit the psychiatric unit and pediatric ward.”

Just before being interviewed for this story, Sarah Kaminskas received some sad news about her beloved Buddy. Despite all the joy he brings, Buddy is still getting on in years, with estimates putting his age between 10 and 11. The day before her e-mail, Kaminskas learned that her aging little miracle worker has gone completely blind in his left eye and is partially blind in his right due to cataracts.

Dr. Dan Brogden of Animal Eye Care in Savannah believes that Buddy could possibly have his left eyesight restored by having the cataract removed and replaced with a new disc, a procedure with a 95 percent success rate. The procedure is complicated, and even with a discount for service animals, the price tag still runs to $1,500.

“Without [the surgery], Buddy will eventually go completely blind,” Kaminskas wrote. “This would be devastating. I believe this little dog lives to touch and bless hurting lives.”

Due to her illness forcing her to leave the job she loved, Kaminskas knows she will not be able to afford the surgery herself.

If you’d like to help an animal that helps so many others, please send donations for Buddy’s surgery to: Brookes Bed & Biscuit, ATT: Buddy fund, 25 Buck Island Road, Bluffton, Sc 29910. Checks should be made out to Tony Kaminskas. If you need or you know someone who needs mental health help, call NAMI at 843-681-2200.