Mahomet boy anxiously waiting for his service dog

By Chicago 7 Min Read

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MAHOMET — Eleven-year-old Sam Turngren wishes time would pass faster. He can’t wait to get his service dog, but that’s still a few months away.

Efforts by Mahomet Lodge 220 as well as the Grand Lodge of Illinois and private donations are helping to defray the cost to give Sam the independence he craves.

A pancake dinner hosted by the lodge on Saturday raised about $2,000 — an amount the Grand Lodge in Springfield will match.

Money for the Turngren family has also come in from GoFundMe donations.

Vance Martin, who heads the lodge, said service dogs are “not cheap, cost around $20,000, and there is a $5,000 deposit and a one-year wait and then the remainder due when they get the dog.”

Sam’s parents are Joe and Dusty Turngren of Mahomet, who said Sam was born with several developmental disabilities, such as autism, and has several other needs.

Joe said he and his wife are trying to maintain as much privacy as they can about their son, who was adopted at birth when he was a day old. He has many issues due to exposure to alcohol and drugs in the womb.

“He’s a tough kid,” Joe said, and counts members of the Masonic Lodge, where his father is junior warden, among his friends.

Donations of milk from Prairie Farms and coffee from Starbucks helped defray the fundraiser costs.

In addition to the $10 charge to eat, many of the approximately 100 people who attended gave additional donations.

Martin said the lodge has been involved in several other community fundraisers.

It likely will not be until late next year before Sam gets to meet his service dog. Training takes a lot of time.

Dusty Turngren said Sam’s knowing he has a service dog in the future brightens his life. Animals are his primary passion.

His favorite NFL team is the Jacksonville Jaguars because of their colors, they have a predator as a mascot and their owner (Shahid Khan) is an Urbana resident.

“He attends the (Jaguars) games in Indianapolis and wears a jersey or shirt to represent his love for the team. He hopes to attend a game in Florida when he gets his service dog,” Dusty said.

Sam’s parents have also taken him to zoos all over the country.

“It’s really rare if Sam’s not carrying some kind of stuffed animal,” his mother said. “He knows most of the people in our neighborhood mostly by their dog.”

Teaching Sam has been difficult, but his parents discovered that visiting as many zoos as they can fit into their schedule provides learning opportunities about animals.

“He learns that naturally,” Dusty said.

Sam takes his lessons at the Mahomet library, where his teacher, Genevieve Ramos, has spoken to him a great deal about the service dog he will one day have.

“Sam’s excited to have the potential to take the dog to the library, where he does his school. He wants to share all of it with her. He’s excited to take the dog to the zoo,” Dusty said.

Sam’s future service dog is also learning its lessons. The school is SIT (Supportive Independence through Teamwork), located in downstate Ava.

Lex Dietz, SIT founder and program director, said her program is the only one in the country designed to train service dogs for medically complex children and adults. It takes about 1,250 hours of training.

SIT was founded in 2009, and Lietz has stopped counting how many dogs the program has trained. Eighteen months ago, the number was 300.

Lietz said a properly trained service dog receives public access training and client-specific training, noting, “The tasks the dogs will do allow client access to their environment and to be independent, and we do that in loud places a pet dog wouldn’t normally go.”

Sixty percent of the labs that are trained come from SIT’s breeding program, with the other 40 percent primarily coming from rescues. A few golden retrievers are also trained.

“Golden retrievers are labs with a different haircut,” Lietz said.

Labs are used because they are intelligent, they want to please, they’re interested in what their person is doing, why they’re doing it and how they can help.

“We want a dog that loves its job,” Lietz said.

She said the bonding process takes time when dog meets human.

“It’s like sprouting another arm, but at the same time, you have to use that. It is absolutely life-changing.

“That sounds cheesy, but it lets people access their environment and their community. Who doesn’t want to have some independence?”

The $20,000 fee the recipient family will pay is half of the cost to train the dog. Lietz said there are many organizations in the Ava area that raise funds to cut down the amount the recipient family has to pay.

SIT places dogs all over the country, including Hawaii.

Joe Turngren said he and his wife are grateful for the support people have been able to provide and said additional fundraisers will probably be held. The Turngrens not only have to pay SIT, but there also will be costs for Sam to spend a week in Southern Illinois to work directly with the dog with the help of trainers.

Donations may be made to Sam Turngren at GoFundMe or at Mahomet Lodge, 414 E. Main St., Mahomet, IL 61853.

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