COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A four-legged, wet-nosed, tail-thumping friend may be the answer to many challenges for one Lexington girl.
"For her entire life, all that she remembers she has been with us," Kaci Mize said.
Kaci and Kimberly Mize fostered and then adopted 5-year-old McKenna Mize when she was an infant. She was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of two, and her pediatrician quickly realized she had a number of other issues. She's working through speech deficits, gross and fine motor skills delays, and also suffers from generalized anxiety and separation anxiety.
"She doesn't want to do anything by herself," Kaci said. "She has a lot of fears that keep her from being independent."
McKenna can meltdown in public if she suffers from sensory overload and struggles to sleep through the night. Kaci and Kimberly say it's not easy to even be on the other side of the house.
"She will hopefully be able to sit and play in her room by herself without calling us in there, or having us in there," Kaci said. "We hope that she will be able to sleep in her own bed without waking up multiple times in the night because she's afraid."
They were talking to a neighbor who suggested they get in contact with the Service Dog Institute based in Simpsonville. Upon meeting service dogs in training, they say McKenna was a completely different child.
"The first time we ever saw her with some service dogs in training both of us cried because it was so inspiring to see how much they changed her life," Kaci said. "It brings her anxiety and her excitement down so much. So we are hoping this will be life changing for her for a long time."
The goal now is to get a service dog for McKenna. After they filled out an application and were approved, they were told the cost to get the dog, train it and raise it for the first year would be upwards of $8,000.
They say this dog wouldn't just be for McKenna – it's for the well-being of the entire family.
"We also have another child with a disability. She has some gross motor delays, she has some cognitive delays from her birth mother's drug use, so our service dog will benefit both of our children."
The Mize family also includes 3-year-old Ellison, whose delays and disabilities they are still uncovering day by day. Melissa Yetter, who founded the Service Dog Institute, says the cost of the dog is purely based on what it takes to house, provide for and train that dog for the first year.
"They're going to be able to get a very high-quality dog... a dog that's trained specifically for McKenna, and a dog that's going to be able to last a very long time for her," Yetter said. ""It's really not only a physical assistance, it's emotional. It helps the whole family, it doesn't just help McKenna, but it helps the whole family."
Meanwhile, McKenna fantasizes about taking her service dog to a restaurant with her, ordering a burger and fries… and coming home and reading to him.
"It'll make me feel happy," McKenna said.
Kaci and Kimberly not only want to raise funds for McKenna's service dog, but also for other children that have disabilities and would benefit from a service dog.
If you'd like to contribute to McKenna's fundraising efforts or contact Kimberly and Kaci for other fundraising ideas for other children, you can visit the family's fundraising page.