Christopher Clemons was at a loss for words.
Nestled snugly in his arms, a puppy named Cena looked up expectantly as Clemons struggled to find the right words to express his gratitude. The young Golden Retriever gazed at his new owner unwaveringly as the pair stood in a conference room at West Middle School on Nov. 21.
Clemons had only officially had the dog for a matter of minutes, but the bond between the two was immediately clear.
"No words can express how I feel right now," Clemons finally said, adding that he and Cena were already working out some critical commands. "We're already doing such a good job. We've got 'sit down' covered."
Clemons and Cena will have plenty of time to supplement that training, thanks in part to the West Middle School community. The school recently raised $3,500 in a single week for the nonprofit Veteran's Puppy For Life, an organization dedicated to connecting veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder with puppies. West Middle School students sold special dog tags to raise the funds, and the entire community responded without hesitation. Puppies For Life covers the costs of adoption, healthcare as well as training for vets looking to connect with a new best friend.
It was the second year that the school had partnered with the organization as part of a wider "Operation Gratitude" movement that began more than 10 years ago. Andy Burns and Sarah Whitley, eighth-grade social studies teachers, have played a key role in organizing the school's push to properly recognize and give back to local veterans.
Partnering with the Puppy For Life nonprofit offered a particularly powerful way to achieve those goals, Burns and Whitley said. Last year's ceremony was a testament to the benefits of the organization's work – in addition to the benefits the campaign offered on lucky vet and one lucky puppy, the fundraising push left students, teachers and community members with a desire to offer similar gifts to another vet in need.
"Last year's recipient was able to join us for several activities – Veterans Day, of course, and Memorial Day at the end of the year," Whitley said. "She just noted several times how much the puppy has helped with her anxiety and how much it's changed her life."
That kind of positive impact is at the heart of the Veterans Puppy For Life organization, according to founder Frank Griggs. Griggs said that fundraising efforts like the one at West Middle School make the organization's work possible, and the end results are a renewed sense of purpose and openness for veterans in need of healing.
"You'd be amazed at the transformation that takes place … Most of these veterans, when they have PTSD, they isolate, they stay away from society, they're hypervigilant. They become more of a hermit," Riggs said after the ceremony at West on Nov. 21. At his side was his own grown Golden Retriever Bo. "Our program helps them step back into society, using the puppy as the instrument to get them back into talking to people again and going into public places again."
The impact was clear as Clemons and Cena interacted with West Middle School students. Clemons sported a broad smile as kids lined up for their turn to say "hello" to the new puppy. Sixth-graders Molly Grantz and Hudson Harris, seventh-graders Alia Paris and Soren Angeline, eighth-graders Veronica Mack, Emma Elwell, Nathan Erickson and Stella Bailey were among the dozens of students who interacted with dog and owner alike.
"With other service dogs, you cannot greet the dog," Griggs said. "We want our dogs to greet people, because that helps veterans start interacting with the public. Everything we do is geared to creating that interaction back with society again."
Even as the fundraiser helps veterans like Clemons reconnect with the world, the effort has a different benefit for the entire West Middle School community. Like the other hundreds of tributes and ceremonies that take place across the Cherry Creek School District during its annual Veterans Week celebration, this show of community support offers an important, tactile lesson for those looking to learn about the true meaning of service and sacrifice.
"This school wants their students to understand that there's more to life than just the school itself," Griggs said. "There's a sacrifice that's been made … That's something that people need to perceive, that freedom isn't free. There are a lot of people with PTSD, people we call 'the invisible wounded.'
"I'm utterly amazed at how fast they were able to raise the money," he added. "It's phenomenal."