Wispact Foundation Grant Spotlight: Dogs in Vests, Palmyra, WI

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Interview with Michelle Holt, Director of Advancement

Dogs in Vests is a non-profit organization that provides service dogs for children and young adults with autism in southeastern and southcentral Wisconsin. Their specialized training program involves the child and their family, allowing the dog to learn and adapt to the unique needs of its future owner. Children and their dogs evolve from strangers to training partners, to trusted companions. The end-result is an empowered child with a new sense of independence and a furry best friend who will be there for them in times of struggle.

“The grant from the Wispact Foundation was pretty significant for us,” said Michelle Holt, Director of Advancement. She continued, “We train the dogs for about two years, and invest about $25,000 into each dog. We donate the dogs 100%. The only thing the families are responsible for is a $500 application fee.”

Because of the high cost of this program, making more dogs available is a challenge. “Do we add a dog to the program this year? Do we add another two puppies? Those are decisions that are very hard to make and are very limited by our fundraising abilities. And so, getting a grant like this is significant for a small organization like ours,” Holt added.

She excitedly spoke of one recipient of Dogs in Vests, saying “I’ve watched this individual just blossom. She was a kid who did not like to leave the house. But now, she just started high school and got a role in the high school musical. I had a couple of teachers comment on how the dog has reduced her anxiety and helped her feel like she’s in a safe place. She now goes out with me and does presentations, advocating for people with autism and educating them about service dogs.”

Applying for most grants can be overwhelming and the Wispact Foundation works diligently to ensure the process is as accessible and simple as possible. Holt highlighted this when she said, “They were extremely helpful. Any time I had questions about specifics, it was very easy to get clarification.” She continued, “It’s also helpful to learn about the other Wispact Grant recipients because we try to partner and network with similar organizations who serve people with special needs. Sometimes our dogs are the perfect fit for a recipient and it’s great to have that big network out there that you can refer families to.”

There are several ways you can help Dogs in Vests assist children and young adults with autism. People are welcome to visit the facility and see the training process with the dogs. Donations are always helpful and there are full and part-time volunteer opportunities for puppy raisers. To learn more about Dogs In Vests, please visit www.dogsinvests.org.