Giving Back, One Paw at a Time
Story by Stephanie Cardozo Photos by Nelson LaPorte
Of course there’s the, oh my gosh it’s a puppy, thought… But it also seemed like fun and so interesting to actually train one and watch them grow.”
Aliciona Hellums is a young lady with a love for helping others. Her dedication is much more than one could imagine. At the young age of seventeen, she has managed to juggle school, life at home and raise a Golden Retriever named Cinnamon. She trained Cinnamon to assist someone with vision impairments, military trauma, or someone who has a need for a loving service dog.
In completing the puppy training, resulting in over four-thousand hours of community service, Aliciona is being awarded with the President’s Award for her Lifetime Achievement of Community Service.
How were you able to manage between training the puppy and school?
“I would say it’s definitely a family project. There were days when I had practice and my brother would take the dog home, or my parents, they helped too, of course. Having the dog at school with me… It’s easier when you’re in an environment where animals are welcomed. So, that helped. But it was definitely a family project.” She repeats with gratitude for her family for being her number one supporters throughout the entire process.
What inspired you to raise puppies?
Aliciona speaks of a fellow student, Christel-Ann Ramus, who was raising a puppy for the Southeastern Guide Dogs program and how it peaked her interest in becoming a part of that training process. “As I talked to her, I just thought it was a really amazing program that I really wanted to be a part of” she expressed, “Another reason is my dad. He’s in the military and he returned from deployment sick. So, it was just really interesting to be involved in a program that can help with that. We have a black Lab named Kyle that helps my dad.” Kyle is an ambassador dog for the Savannah area who was raised by Aliciona’s friend, Christel-Ann. Hitting close to home, this miraculous young lady continues to inspire with her natural love of wanting to make a difference and do what is within her power to touch the lives of those in need of a loving and caring guide dog.
Raising puppy guide dogs is a huge responsibility and offers the puppy real-life experiences that will provide it with learning opportunities and growth. These are key elements in becoming a good guide dog and being placed with the right person to assist.
“It was a family commitment because we all had to be involved. It was different than raising your own family pet. You had to know everything about this dog, where to take them… And it really makes you look at everything differently,” Aliciona’s mother, Tammy explains. Raising a service puppy will open your eyes to a much bigger picture because this dog will potentially make someone’s life a lot better.
“I didn’t necessarily know what I was getting myself into when Aliciona came home one day and said, “Mom! I want to raise a puppy,” she continues, “It took me a few minutes to say okay. I told her to fill out the application. It opens your heart and your mind to more things that you can do and when your child comes home wanting to raise a service puppy and not knowing the whole aspect of raising one, it just blesses your heart that they want to give back.”
Aliciona has inspired her brother, Gabriel Hellums, to raise a service puppy as well. He is now training a six-month old yellow Labrador named Earl Farnsworth. When asked what made him want to do this, Gabriel jokingly answers in true sibling fashion. “I kinda wanted to see if I can raise a better puppy than my sister.” Gabriel expressed that he too wanted to become a part of a wonderful program and assist in making a positive change in someone’s life.
Finding a taste for Cinnamon…
When asked about Cinnamon, giggles broke through the Hellums family. It was clear that Cinnamon was a force to be reckoned with and left quite a mark on Hellums family. With a joyful tone and a smile with each word spoken, Aliciona shares, “She was amazing!” Tammy chimes in, “She was just the life of the party!”
“She’s a sweetheart. I’m not a dog person. It’s not that I don’t like them, but usually, I would have a little kitten to play with. But Cinnamon just converted me. I’m completely in love with dogs now. She’s always so excited, happy, playful and sassy,” adds Tammy.
Saying good-bye and saying hello!
After raising and training the sassy Cinnamon for just under a year, it was time to say good-bye and welcome the next puppy, Einstein, a fifteen week-old Goldador, Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever mix. Aliciona explains that she is still getting to know the puppy in the early stages of raising him and that he is a much calmer canine. Cinnamon and Einstein were together for about two weeks before good-byes were said.
“The biggest challenge for me was to give Cinnamon back because you definitely get attached. You feel like it’s your dog but it’s not. It is what’s going to give somebody their life back. It’s really sad to let go. I said good-bye to her the night before dropping her off at campus in Florida. There, I just had to walk away,” shares Aliciona.
The Hellums family expressed high praises and gratitude for their area coordinator, Kersten Ramus for tending to their every need and answering all their question in ensuring that Aliciona raise the puppy in the best way possible.
Aliciona proves to be an exceptional young lady and knows that her sacrifices are for a wonderful cause. Congratulations to her for her Lifetime Achievement award in Community Service.