When 5-year-old Rylee Heathman went with her family to visit Santa Claus last month at the Lompoc Elks Lodge, her grandparents, who are also her guardians, had no idea what she would ask St. Nick to bring her.
“We just figured it would be the same kind of stuff she asks for every year,” said LeAnne Woolever, Rylee’s grandmother.
Instead, Rylee, who was born with a form of cerebral palsy, surprised her grandparents — Grandpa Tim Woolever was also there — and even Santa.
“She asked Santa for a service dog named Precious,” LeAnne said. “I looked at Tim and he started crying. Santa didn’t know what to do.”
Once back home, LeAnne discussed the idea further with Rylee and after determining that this was something that could really help her, LeAnne and her husband began the process of making their granddaughter’s wish a reality.
The Woolevers were able to find a facility, Doggie Do Good, in Arroyo Grande that will select and train a dog who will eventually help Rylee, who has trouble walking on uneven surfaces, by serving as a stable platform to keep her from falling and will help her up when she does fall. The dog would also turn on lights, open doors and “be there for Rylee whenever she needs it,” according to her grandmother.
The main obstacle for the family is the dog’s cost.
An early estimate for the cost of the dog and its training and care leading up to it moving in with Rylee is about $35,000. The family would need to come up with about $20,000 for a down payment on the dog.
The Woolevers discussed those costs with some family and friends and were encouraged to try fundraising. Last Tuesday, Tim Woolever created a GoFundMe page — at www.gofundme.com/jrb8cs — to test the waters. By Friday evening, just three days after the page’s creation, 13 donors had contributed $670.
“It’s amazing how fast it’s gone,” Tim said.
On Friday, the Woolevers opened a donation account at Coast Hills Federal Credit Union, where anyone can donate to the cause in an account set up as “Rylee’s Service Dog Fund” (account number 182550-02).
The family is also exploring other fundraising avenues that involve community nonprofits and groups with which they are affiliated.
“I was kind of (reluctant) because I’ve never asked anyone for money or help before,” LeAnne said. “I’ve been the one who always helps people. When it comes back around to you, it’s kind of a (different) feeling.”
Rylee, who is a kindergartner at Buena Vista Elementary, has had setbacks in her life since birth. She and her fraternal twin, Danny, were born premature at just 30 weeks. Rylee, who was just 3 pounds, 2 ounces at birth, had complications during delivery that led to her developing spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy.
She and her sister, who developed other disabilities, have lived with their grandparents since they were 1 year old, and have undergone intensive therapy since then.
Rylee began crawling when she was 2, walking with a walker at 3 and underwent surgery and began walking on her own at 4.
Still, she often falls, which is especially dangerous because she lacks the reflexes to put her arms out to brace herself.
“There’s been times where she’s fallen completely backward and hit her head on cement floors,” said LeAnne, who is a special education teacher with Lompoc Unified School District. “When that happens, she gets very quiet and withdrawn and she doesn’t want to do things anymore and that concerns me as her grandmother because you want your child to go out and explore and do the things that 5- and 6-year-olds do.”
At the Doggie Do Good facility, a litter of Labs was born eight weeks ago. After the puppies begin to show signs of their personality, one will be selected for Rylee and the trainers will start calling it Precious.
The family will have to make several trips to Arroyo Grande for Rylee to bond with the dog. It could take up to 14 months before the dog is ready to move into Rylee’s home.
When that time comes, Rylee already has a space between the two sister’s beds for Precious to sleep.
LeAnne said she made it her New Year’s resolution to get Precious to their home.
“This is all about Rylee. She wants a service dog and we want to do that for her,” LeAnne said. “It’s a long-term thing. It’ll grow up with her and be her companion. … You just want the best for your children and want them to have the health and things that they need.”