THE CANINE SUPPORT TEAMS’ STORY IS “CAROL’S STORY”
The story of Carol Roquemore is one of courage and commitment. Born in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, one of two daughters of a high school music teacher, Carol has seen much in her lifetime. At age four, she was diagnosed with Polio.
“We moved to Brawley, California for my Dad’s work,” she explains. “He was the music teacher and the marching band director; he did it all. He could play anything,” she says with a smile. Unfortunately, a short time after their relocation, Carol started to complain of flu-like symptoms. They expected it would pass, as the flu typically does, but within days, she could not get off the couch.”When my parents held me up to go to the bathroom and I started screaming from the leg pain, they knew something was serious,” she said. She was taken to Children’s Hospital in San Diego where they performed a spinal tap procedure and diagnosed her with Polio. Polio is a highly contagious disease. Carol’s mother had warned her not to play with a neighborhood friend who was sick. In the early fifties, before the Salk Vaccine, mothers rightfully had those concerns. “Well like any kid, I knew I could do it anyway; so I decided if we played through the screen door I would be okay,” she explained. Once Carol was diagnosed, the disease moved quickly to take control of her body. Within days of being admitted into Children’s Hospital, she lost all ability to move any part of her body… she couldn’t do as much as smile. “Blinking was the only physical movement I could accomplish,” she said. “This went on for many weeks.”
When she thinks of her time in the hospital, Carol remembers the Sister Nurses and their kindness. She remembers the feeling of the woolen hot packs. She also remembers listening to the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh sounds of the Iron Lung in the next room. “I escaped the Iron Lung” she says. “I was lucky in that way. But, you know polio affects everyone’s body differently.” Carol was in a rocking bed that kept motion in her body to prevent organ failure. Ironically, the neighborhood friend, from whom she had originally caught the virus, walked out of the hospital. “She was lucky, very lucky,” Carol says of her friend. “I remember she had on this cowgirl dress with a pony embroidered on the front of it; I liked that dress. She was wearing it the last time I saw her. She was standing in the doorway of my room as she waved goodbye.” Carol never saw her friend again and to this day has no idea where she went when she left the hospital.
Carol remained in the hospital for six months. After many weeks of being unable to move, she got limited movement back in half of her face and other small areas. Working with physical therapists, she was able to build on the progress. She stayed in a ward with nearly twenty other children with similar conditions. She was lonely. She missed her family; but she kept busy and tried not dwelling on her situation.
“The caregivers were great,” she remembers, “they would read to us and do other activities. Even if you couldn’t participate, you could watch and listen; anything to keep us busy.” While Carol was in the hospital, her family would visit every weekend. In an attempt to move closer to the hospital, her father took a job in Downey, California. When she returned home, they transferred her care to the Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, one of the premiere polio-rehab facilities in the nation at the time. Carol attended physical therapy there for the rest of her childhood. “It was all repetition,” she explains. “We would work on an area and do the same exercise until we thought we would drop. They pushed us really hard.”
A neighbor offered to build what can best be described as an oversized skateboard with a pull rope, to help her get around. “He walked in as he was finishing it and asked me what color I wanted,” she laughingly remembers, “Blue I told him – bright blue! He went to the hardware store and got the brightest blue paint you have ever seen!” Carol’s family pulled her around Downey, to the store, and everywhere else on a board with wheels, just a few inches above the ground. “What I remember are people’s shoes,” she says, “I spent my childhood watching people walk in shoes. I used to watch the top and the bottom of their shoes… No wonder I have a shoe fetish now, huh!” By the time she was sixteen, she had worked to the level of paraplegic. Through a grueling regimen of continuous physical therapy, she developed a strong upper body and could get around well with her wheelchair.
I had a car and could wrestle the chair in behind my seat. I just couldn’t get it out,” she explains. “I have never been bashful, so I would sit in my car until someone passed by and I would yell out at them, ‘Hey can you help me get my chair out?’” She did well. She married; gave birth to her only son, was driving and doing well. Her life could have been considered normal. So normal that it included common family issues many families face. “My husband was an alcoholic,” she admits. “I was young and must have been naive because I let him talk me into moving to Alaska.” Her husband was from Alaska, and promised once back home he would have a job at the mill, be around his family and friends, and would not drink as much. With that hope in mind, the southern California girl headed to Alaska. As she boarded a plane in San Diego, one of the stewardesses commented,” . . . you live in San Diego and you’re moving to Alaska?” “That is when I first realized I was in trouble,” she explained. “Sadly only the first; don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful, very beautiful. However, the only thing there was to do there was drink. There was snow all winter and mud all spring . . . and I was in a wheelchair.” Her husband went back on his promises and became abusive. Carol was a long way from home and all that made her comfortable. As her marriage unwound, Carol became friends with an old Coonhound named Fat Albert. “He kept away the demons,” she recalls. “He was my protector and my companion.” Meeting Fat Albert changed her life. “I have always had pets and been an animal lover, but that experience gave me a newfound love and respect for them,” she said. When she had taken enough, she packed up her son and left Alaska for her beloved southern California. She was unable to bring Fat Albert with her as he belonged to one of her ex-husband’s friends. Nevertheless, the impact of that friendship set in motion a new direction for Carol.
Through the years since the original battles against polio, caregivers have discovered a syndrome called Post Polio Syndrome. It seems to be from years of continuous physical therapy. By the age thirty-five, and after years of physical therapy, Carol began to experience shoulder and neck pain. By then, she was remarried and had turned her passion for dogs into a career. She had become a dog trainer. This was the time she received her first electric wheelchair. “It was such a feeling of liberation,” she recalls. “I had become bad enough that getting around wasn’t easy anymore. Her new electric chair gave her the exhilaration of freedom. “I think people came and signed up for training because they wanted to watch the lady in the wheelchair conducting the class,” she laughs.
She was living in Redding and enjoying her work, when tragedy once again struck her family; her second husband committed suicide. “My son found him and refused to let me go down to the house,” she recalls. “It was an emotional time for all of us. After all the details of settling the estate were finished, Carol sold the house and property in Redding and once again headed home to southern California; that was 1989.
Bonnie Bergin from Santa Rosa developed the concept of service dogs doing more than being a guide dog. The organization Bonnie founded provided Carol with her first service dog. The organization was charging $30,000 for a dog. Carol applied for a dog and was approved. The local Lion’s Club, Elk’s Club,and other local groups helped Carol raise the $30,000 for her first service dog. She was grateful to receive the dog, whose name was Hopeful, but she soon realized there were problems. “Well, he was a Border Collie,” she explains. “He reverted back to being a Border Collie.” Carol learned the dog had been returned to the organization three previous times after placement. It took some doing, but understanding Carol’s determination, she was able to exchange Hopeful for a new dog. A black lab named Aries. Carol had applied to the organization to be a trainer. Based on seeing her resume they knew she had the experience to handle problem dogs. Aries was never a problem dog; he just was not trained well enough to do the things they told Carol he could. Carol trained him herself and he became a great first service companion experience.
“People started asking me to help them with their service dog,” she said. “I was able to work with both the dog and their owner and help make good dogs better. I would never say anything but good things about other organizations; but here we have never charged for a dog.” The request for assistance from others, combined with her lifetime commitment to dog training led to the formation of her nonprofit organization called Canine Support Teams, which she founded twenty-two years ago. “We actually formed the non-profit organization with my credit card,” she recalls. “We all worked out of our homes. We have great volunteers.”
In 2000, she got a call from Brent Martini. Brent had a friend whose daughter had just been told she had less than a year to live. Brent wanted to sponsor the cost of a dog for the little girl. “At the time we did not have an available dog for her.” Carol explains. “All the dogs in the program were committed to other recipients.” Believing the girl had a very short time to enjoy life, Carol wanted to share the joy of having a companion service dog. Carol gave the little girl her own dog. This so moved Brent Martini he has become one of her largest supporters. “That’s Carol,” he explains. “Carol would give another person her wheelchair if she felt it would help them. That is just Carol. Her faith in God is so strong that if she gave her chair to someone else, she believes God would be there to take care of her. She is a remarkable woman,” he added. “That is why my family and I have stayed involved.”
Canine Support Teams delivers an average of thirty service dogs per year. These are well-trained dogs with training specific for each recipient. They are trained to assist with little things we may not ever consider being an issue. Things like turning on and off lights and picking up dropped keys, open and close doors, push elevator buttons, untie shoes, pull off socks, assist with pulling off a sweater or coat and in some cases even help with a pair of trousers. A person’s service dog can assist with standing and walking by being there to steady them or help sit down in a chair and get back up. The dogs are there to steady their owners while being transferred from a wheel chair to a bed or assist in a restroom, which may not be properly equipped.
Each person chosen to receive a dog spends two weeks in team training learning how to work with his or her new companion. The recipients become part of Carol’s extended family. Her team provides any follow up required, insuring the best possible experience. As earlier stated, recipients are not required to pay for their dog or the follow up. She does, however, give them the opportunity to be a donor to the program if they have the means. Carol’ s nonprofit organization relies on contributions and fundraisers to provide their services. Carol is the chief fundraiser and works tirelessly to keep the organization on solid ground.
“People get involved because of Carol,”Brent Martini shared, “All you have to do is hear Carol talk about the joy of the people who receive the dogs and if you have the means you want to be involved. I have seen what a dog in a child’s life can mean and our family will continue to sponsor dogs as long as we have the ability.” After Carol gave her personal dog to Brent’s friend’s ailing daughter Brent sponsored a dog for Carol. She named him Marti after Brent’s family. Marti became Carol’s personal dog and all time closest friend. Marti was diagnosed with cancer at age eight. “It was so sudden,” Carol remembers, “From the day they told me he was sick he only lived five more days.” It was hard, very hard.” Carol did not have another personal service dog for three years. She could not replace her best friend. Today Marti is the official mascot of the organization and his picture has a prominent part of their working office. The Marti Fund helps with unforeseen veterinarian bills if a placed service dog becomes severely ill.
In 2002, Brent Martini, in the name of his family, purchased and donated the facility in Menifee which is the current home of the organization. “There was a point where it became clear to us that with an actual fiscal location we could move the organization along,” Brent explained. Brent has supported the organization through the years for the same reason Carol founded it. “I have seen first hand the difference a service dog can make in the life of a child. These are kids who have been teased by others or have never had a true friend. I find it rewarding to help people who have had to endure challenges beyond those I have ever had,” he said. Brent has sponsored nearly fifteen dogs. CST delivers a dog to a recipient at a hard cost of $15,000 to the organization. She accomplishes all this with volunteers and a small modestly paid staff. However, in classic Carol style, she delivers a well-trained dog at half the cost of her original dog more than thirty years ago, by doing several things.
They work from modest but functional facilities in Menifee. She has a network of volunteers who help raise and train the dogs. Fortunately, her creativity and desire to help others, led her seven years ago to develop a new program that has taken her in an entirely new direction. Carol spends most every Tuesday evening in the California Institute for Women, in Chino.
She works with the inmates and trains them to become dog trainers for her program. She has developed a remarkable relationship not just with the prison administration, but with the inmates as well. “The women, who have been released from prison after being involved in the dog training program, have not returned to prison… not one of them,” she boasts. “We have women in our program now, who will still be incarcerated for many more years. I am confident, that if they got out tomorrow, they are good enough to be employed as a dog trainer immediately. They are good, very good. “Carol is extremely proud of this program and the women who are in it. “I have never been afraid when going to the prison,” Carol said. “After being in an abusive relationship and understanding the torture that can exist, I had an immediate connection with women there. I have learned that even the best people have a breaking point. Most of the women we meet in there have only committed one crime. They weren’t bad people, they had just reached that point.” “Everybody deserves a second chance,” she states, “I know not everyone agrees with me on that, but I have seen it.”
The ability to deliver 30 dogs per year has to be credited to this program. Inmates in the prison have trained the majority of the dogs Carol’s organization now delivers. The impact of this program on the new owners of the dogs is paralleled only by the impact it has on the lives of the women in the prison. Once assigned a dog, the dog stays with the inmate 24/7. Because of the confined life of the inmates, they can give the training of the dog their full attention. It also gives them a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of giving to a cause, which helps so many. Every Tuesday evening, Carol and her staff conduct a two-hour class to help understand the progress of each dog and help the trainer move the dog to the next level.
They have women inmates, who have been with the program from the beginning, and now help with the Tuesday night classes. What an incredible legacy. The prison program has also helped them identify dogs that have the ability to detect seizures. “Not all dogs can identify and respond to a person who is experiencing a seizure,” Carol explains. “There are woman we work with and who work around our trainers, who experience seizures. Our inmate trainers are able to observe which dogs have the tendency that has proven necessary to train a dog to support a person whose disability may include experiencing seizures.” Without the program, to be able to identify those dogs would be much more difficult.
A few years ago, Carol called her staff together and said she had an idea. “It always scares them when I get a new idea,” she admits. But she, like all of us, had been watching the news of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was moved by the reports of how many were coming back with missing limbs and other disabling injuries. “We need to do something for them,” she told her staff. “We can provide them with dogs, I know what that will do.” Since that staff meeting, CST has delivered at least 10 dogs to returning veterans. “We have what we call the “pay it forward” concept. People, who are donating to our organization, are paying it forward, so our program can continue,” she explains. “Training a dog is a long process and requires funds to see the dog all the way through the program.”
Carol is constantly planning something new and is currently working on training programs that would provide service dogs to people suffering from Autism or seizures. She works every week, lives near the facility, and continues to explore ways to combine her love and respect for dogs, into the lives of people who may need a companion. “Those of us with physical challenges don’t want to be completely dependent on others. We want to do for ourselves as much as possible. It’s extremely important for us to have some independence and be accepted no matter what we look like. No matter how twisted our body, or our ability to speak and communicate dogs will love us anyway.”
Well, if you grew up in Downey, California, and remember the little girl on the bright blue skateboard in the local grocery store, we want you to know she has done well. She is living a full life and has touched and improved the lives of hundreds of other people. If you think Carol Roquemore is special, you are right. She is very special.
— The Carol Roquemore Story written by John Roberts, Country Legends Magazine