17 years ago our, then, 18 year old son was ready to go out on his own. His independence left a hole in our home and our lives. We both had successful careers, Tami Lynn was a long time Personal Manager, having guided the careers of people like Valerie Bertinelli, Christina Applegate, and countless others. Kim was a successful television news reporter and anchor with the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles. Both with busy, but manageable, schedules, there was, however, enough time left over to do something extra. We decided to become foster parents. We thought providing temporary care for ‘little ones’ who had nowhere to go might be the right thing to do. Children’s Services brought us a drug exposed baby girl, saying she would be with us for no more than two weeks while they looked for a permanent home for her. One look in her eyes, and we knew she already had a permanent home.
Sensing some medical problems we had her examined by a Neurologist. She was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. Surgery was required to implant a shunt designed to drain the excess fluid building up in her head. We were also informed that had cerebral palsy. Learning we planned to adopt the little girl, doctors tried to discourage us. They wanted us to give up on her. Had we listened we would have missed out on the greatest experience of our lives.
We named her Kassalynn Kim Marriner, and call her ‘Kassie’. She is our daughter.
The word ‘can’t’ has never been part of Kassie’s vocabulary. From the beginning she has found ways to accomplish goals, her mind was always working on developing alternatives to conventional practices. Toddlers walk to push their baby buggies, Kassie used the Buggy for support and walked on her knees. If there was a way, she found it. We knew there would be challenges, but surprisingly those challenges were simply adjustments. Those adjustments became routine, and never presented themselves as obstacles.
Had we known then what we know now would we have tackled the adoption? In a heartbeat. Perfect is defined as “excellent or ideal in everyway.” That certainly describes how we feel about Kassie. She has challenges, sure, but she’s still perfect.
Severe spasticity in her legs prevented Kassie from crawling and standing. Several doctors doubted she would ever walk. In the past decade much as changed. A miraculous seven-hour surgical procedure, called a “Rhizotomy” relieved most of the spasticity, allowing her to bend her legs, but it did little to provide the balance required to walk. Kassie got around with a walker, which aided mobility, but scared away kids her age who had never been around a person with a disability. The answer to her dilemma was simply “four legs away”.
Enter Dakota, a Yellow Labrador Retriever trained at CANINE SUPPORT TEAM as a “Companion Dog”. At the age of 10 years old, Kassie got Dakota to assist her by fetching shoes, socks and other personal items. The two bonded instantly, becoming inseparable. His eagerness to please led Kassie’s us to try something new. We asked a local shoemaker to add a handle to Dakota’s harness. Maybe Dakota could provide the necessary support Kassie needed to walk. Dakota’s job now was to assist Kassie by allowing her to lean on him using the special harness when walking. In California, this type of training has never been done. So Kassie’s parents contacted GUIDE DOGS FOR THE BLIND, and befriended Keith Tomlinson, director of the Southern California division of the organization. Keith had never done this before but was so fascinated with the idea, took it upon himself to work with Kassie and Dakota. Nobody knew what the outcome was going to be. However, right from the beginning, Kassie and Dakota bonded immediately and together started their journey walking as one. In only 6 weeks of working around the home area, Kassie and Dakota were ready to walk in the mall. That day, Kassie’s parents will never forget. For the first time, Kassie was walking through the mall with Dakota by her side. They walked for 3 hours and her we cried the entire 3 hours.
As the years passed, Kassie and Dakota out grew their ‘homemade’ harness. Kassie’s mother was watching Animal Planet, which aired a remarkable story on INDEPENDENCE DOGS in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. INDEPENDENCE DOGS trains dog specifically to assist adults and children to walk. These dogs are called ‘Walker dogs’. The most intriguing asset was the beautiful harness the dogs are given. Now days Kassie is often seen walking through malls, movie theatres, restaurants, airplanes…you name it, and Dakota is there right by her side. Children no longer shy away. They get close to see Dakota, and once they talk to Kassie, they realize she’s a kid like them, but who needs just a little extra support to get around.
Kassie will graduate from High School this year with a 4.0 average. She plans to go to college and study communications. Her passion is studying film, and hopes someday to become a reviewer and critic. Whatever path she takes will be the right one for her. We’ve learned that all her ‘steps’ are a struggle, but she takes them with grace and pride.
Did we mention we think she’s perfect.