By SKYLER SWISHER
Photo: Senior Anthony Prevatt pauses during lunch to give Sofie, his service dog, a cool drink at Deltona High School recently. (N-J | Peter Bauer)
About an hour before lunch on a recent morning at Deltona High School, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever sat next to Anthony Prevatt’s wheelchair.
He dropped the dog’s leash. Without a word spoken, Sofie lowered her head, latched her teeth onto the end, lifted it and placed it in Prevatt’s palm.
Prevatt took the leash and smiled. He remembered when school was a frustrating place to be.
“I wouldn’t even talk,” he said. “I wouldn’t even ask for help from teachers. I would try to do it myself.”
But Prevatt, now in his senior year, doesn’t have to do it by himself anymore. Volusia County Schools gave him permission this academic year to bring his service dog to campus.
Sofie is the only service dog being used by a student in Volusia County Schools, and one of only a few in the school system’s history.
Prevatt received the dog as a present on Christmas Eve. Sofie helps him by picking up items he drops, opening drawers and pressing the handicap button on the door.
Those simple gestures add up.
Jennie Hughes, an assistant principal at Deltona High School, has noticed a change in Prevatt’s performance in the classroom.
“It’s making a difference,” she said. “He is paying attention. He is doing the work.”
There was a time when Prevatt was just existing rather than living, said his mother, Cassandra Adams.
When Prevatt was born nearly 18 years ago, he weighed only 3 pounds. His heart stopped beating during birth, and the lack of oxygen to his brain caused cerebral palsy.
He tried to walk with the assistance of crutches, but his legs were too weak. He’s been in a wheelchair his entire life.
With cerebral palsy, a dropped pencil can turn into a crisis. A closed door remains shut. Being independent — feeling like a normal teenager — can seem unattainable.
Prevatt hated to go to school, his mother said. Adams waged a battle every morning to get him up for class, and her son despised going out in public.
When Prevatt got to Deltona High, he kept his head down so much that Adams worried her son would crash into a wall.
A SENSE OF PURPOSE
During lunchtime at Deltona High, Prevatt and Sofie weaved their way through a cafeteria crammed with 800 teenagers. The conversations made the room deafening.
Prevatt maneuvered his power chair through the crowd. Sofie’s gaze remained fixed ahead.
A few students cast inquisitive glances at Sofie, but most paid no attention to the canine making her way through the lunchroom.
Training completed by both Sofie and the students allowed this scene to unfold without incident. The goal was to make Sofie invisible to the public, minimizing the distraction to other students. Sofie was taught to lie down when she is in class.
My Angel with Paws, a DeLand-based organization that provides service dogs to people with disabilities at no charge, prepped Sofie for school. During her training, she visited Disney World and crowded flea markets to acclimate her to crowds. The organization invests about $15,000 into each service animal.
Sofie learned how to ride in the school bus in a harness, ignore passing students and respond to about 90 commands.
Meanwhile, students received guidance on how to interact with Sofie. They were told never to pet her without permission or feed her table scraps.
A DEEP BOND
Service dogs are considered to be working animals, but they can develop a deep connection with the people they help, said Chris Tejcek, executive director of My Angels with Paws.
“It’s actually a little deeper than marriage,” she said. “It’s real full bonding.”
People who have received service dogs in their old age have told Tejcek suddenly strangers approach them when they’ve been scorned their entire lives. The dog made them more approachable and served as a conversation starter. It also provided a sense of liberation they never felt before.
Tejcek has no doubts canines benefit from helping people with disabilities. After a while, service dogs know almost instinctively what to do to assist their owner, she said, comparing it to a relationship in which two people can finish each other’s sentences.
“Just like humans, dogs need a purpose,” Tejcek said.
It’s still early in the school year, but Prevatt can already envision himself at graduation. He will be on a stage and take his diploma. Sofie will be by his side. They will have earned the honor together.
There will be a graduation party, where friends and family will congratulate him and Sofie.
Prevatt hopes his education doesn’t end there. He wants to further his studies. He wants to work with service animals. He’s already speaking at events about their importance.
Turns out that just like dogs, humans need a purpose, too, Prevatt’s mother said. With Sofie around, her son’s head is no longer down.
“Now, he is looking up,” she said, “and he realizes there is a whole world out there.”
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