PRINCESS ANNE, Md. (AP) — Raheem Redding likes to greet people with a big smile, a wave and a fist bump.
When he’s not playing with his electronic tablet, the 9-year-old usually has a toy truck in hand, trying to peer through the windows to see if he can find his “Pop-Pop” sitting inside.
In the living room of his grandparents’ Princess Anne home, he goes from family member to family member to let each person know he loves them, something Rondell Redding, Raheem’s father, said he does, “Every day. Every hour. Every minute.”
Raheem was born six weeks premature with a condition called hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid on the brain that causes increased pressure in the skull and can lead to other medical complications.
Experts estimate hydrocephalus occurs in 1 out of every 500 births, according to the Pediatric Hydrocephalus Foundation.
Raheem’s mother, Jade Redding, rattles off a list of his conditions that include sleep apnea, asthma, hypothyroidism, pituitary dwarfism, global developmental delay, problems with hypoglycemia and, his parents’ chief concern, seizures.
But Rondell, a Princess Anne police officer, said nothing has slowed Raheem.
“There’s plenty of medical issues; however, he fights right through them,” he said.
Raheem’s family is working to raise money to get him a multipurpose assistance dog through 4 Paws for Ability Inc. that will be able to alert them about seizures and help him better control his behavior outside the home.
In total, the dog will cost $40,000, with the family committed to raising $17,000.
The major fundraiser so far has been a two-day softball tournament in early November, which featured a silent raffle, food and drinks and a home run derby. In October, there was a bowling event that raised about $1,000 as well.
So far, Rondell said there isn’t much of a warning for when Raheem might have a seizure.
“Pretty much, we just go throughout our daily lives as anyone else would and we just try to keep a close eye on him,” he said.
But having a service dog in Raheem’s life could be the key to helping him grow into a happier, more independent child, able to overcome some of the obstacles of his medical history.
Kelly Camm, 4 Paws for Ability development director, said the service dog will also be able to help Raheem stay grounded to where he is and what he’s doing to de-escalate his behavior and help him socialize.
“He’ll be able to take him places and help him get into the community and be included versus right now, a lot of kids with disabilities, if they’re having meltdowns in public, they’re not really included,” she said.
Seizures can interrupt Raheem’s life at any moment.
They’ve brought on lengthy stays in the hospital and emergency trips by both ambulance and helicopter.
“Like when we were at the softball tournament, it was out of the blue,” Rondell said. “We were just literally walking to the car. He got to the car and had a seizure. It’s unpredictable at this point and no diagnosis for the reason why he has them.”
Raheem’s grandmother, Isha Redding, hopes as Raheem gets older and grows in his relationship with his service dog, he’ll be able to achieve a greater degree of independence.
The 9-year-old relies heavily on his parents, grandmother and brother, and they often drop what they’re doing to check in on him and make sure he’s doing OK, she said, especially when he’s alone. Having a service dog around that’s able to alert his family to a medical emergency as it’s happening or even before it starts, will be a comfort.
“This way hopefully he can go some places by himself or do some other things that he doesn’t always get to do,” she said. “He went on a field trip for school, and they didn’t even realize that he was having a seizure. He probably rode another 10 miles on a school bus before anybody realized.”
In addition to the dog’s primary role of alerting for seizures, Raheem’s service dog will also be trained in behavior disruption.
While Jade has Raheem’s behavior pretty much under control at home, his grandmother said he struggles in school, finding it difficult to sit still when he needs to get his work done.
“A lost of it has to do with the fact that he can’t really tell us why he’s upset,” she said. “He can’t tell us when he’s about to have a seizure.”
4 Paws for Ability is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides service dogs for children and veterans with disabilities.
Based out of Ohio, 4 Paws has bred, trained and placed more than 1,200 service dogs since it was established in 1998.
What sets the organization apart, Camm said, is that it’s one of the country’s largest providers of service dogs that’s willing to work with children.
She said people often ask if a family can simply find someone local to train a service dog rather than traveling all the way to Ohio, but when it comes to meeting the needs of a child like Raheem, the answer is usually no.
“There are independent dog trainers out there that sometimes train somebody’s existing pet, sometimes a rescue dog,” she said. “That’s all well and good, but most agencies don’t actually work with kids his age, and a lot of them don’t work with his type of disability.”
The nonprofit breeds all its dogs, which Camm said live with puppy raisers in the first several months while they go through basic obedience training and work on socialization.
She said between 9 and 11 months old, the dogs are evaluated to determine whether they’re ready to enter into advanced training where trainers start looking at what sort of service skills the dogs might be interested in performing.
Once the dog is ready, she said Raheem and his family will fly out to Ohio where they’ll participate in a 12-day training course that will teach them how to work with the dog.
In addition to having a warning system for seizures, Camm said once they go through the training course, Raheem’s parents will be able to give one of the commands they learned and the dog hopefully will be able to help calm Raheem.
When it comes to placing a service dog with a child Raheem’s age, she said it works best to pair them up young, so most of 4 Paws’ service dogs are placed at 1 to 1 1/2 years old.
“Kids and dogs, the younger they are, the better they’ll get along together,” she said. “They’ll bond really, really well together.”
Though the training in preparation for bringing the service dog home will be intense, Rondell said knowing what it could mean for Raheem and for their family is exciting.
“But at the same time, I still have my thoughts in my mind of how things are going to go,” he said. “I’m worried, and I’m just ready for it to start and we get this thing rolling.”
The family first learned about the possibility of getting a seizure assistance dog for Raheem during a doctor’s appointment in Baltimore.
They met another parent in the waiting room whose child suffered from seizures and who had been working with a service dog.
When Jade and Isha asked Raheem’s doctor if that might be an option for him, she wrote them a prescription with exactly what she thought would be most beneficial for Raheem in a service animal.
After working through the 4 Paws for Ability application process in May, the family’s fundraising efforts kicked into high gear in August and September of this year.
In addition to the community fundraisers, 4 Paws for Ability also helped the family set up an online donation page through FirstGiving, which has raised $900 through 18 donors, who have each donated anywhere from $5 to $100.
“Obviously they’re looking for the community to help and you know that whole thing, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ it really does,” Camm said. “It takes people that care and understand how important this dog will be to him and his family and really help him live a more independent and happy life.”
Upcoming fundraisers include a pasta dinner put on by Wicomico Presbyterian Church in Salisbury on Saturday, Nov. 25 and a quarter auction at the Princess Anne Volunteer Fire Company on Saturday, Dec. 2.
Rondell said the family is hopeful that they’ll be able to head to Ohio to pick up Raheem’s service dog around June or July of 2018, but the fundraising efforts won’t end there.
The Redding family and their community partners are planning to make the softball tournament and bowling event annual fundraisers to benefit other disabled children on the Eastern Shore who might be in need of a service dog or have other accessibility requirements.
“It’s more of a first annual thing because even though we’ve already started and we’re going with his goal that we want to meet, we don’t want to hold anyone else back,” Rondell said. “We don’t want to pull away from any other child, so our softball team has come up with a plan that we’re going to continue to keep doing this every year.”