She'll Warm Your Heart
"Just living is not enough"
said the butterfly. "One must
have sunshine, freedom
and a little flower."
-Hans Christian Anderson
Anne Guthrie likes to talk about her little red dog Stephanie as though she were an actual person. What started out as an annual Christmas card featuring a photo of Stephanie in various holiday get-ups (dressed in a Santa outfit, Nutcracker ballerina tutu, or disguised as the Grinch's dog Max) gradually evolved into a series of poignant stories cleverly written from the dog's point of view and sent via the cards. Without even knowing it, by investing such a profound personality in the dog, Anne was actually creating the mascot for a cause that would one day become her most important life's work.
Over 20 years ago, Anne was in a very serious car accident. She suffered a neck injury that left her with chronic nerve pain on one side of her head and an off-kilter sense of balance. Unable to drive a car and limited as to the amount of walking she can do before she succumbs to the jarring pain in her head, Anne hadn't experienced true freedom of motion for a long time. Then her husband gave her a 3-wheeled bicycle, essentially a special trike for adults, and it changed her life.
"It gave me a feeling of independence and freedom," she said, recalling those first giddy days of pedaling around her quiet neighborhood in Beaufort. "I felt like I could get out and feel the wind in my face after being stifled for so long."
The feeling reminded her of a stanza from one of her favorite poems by Hans Christian Anderson and she wished she could find a way to help other disabled people become like the butterfly.
The following Christmas, Anne decided to act upon this wish. She sent out a card to family and friends containing a written plea from the Little Red Dog to help raise money for bikes that she could donate to people who suffered from balance or mobility problems. The response was overwhelming and Anne managed to collect enough money to purchase six more cycles. When it came time to donate the cycles, her thoughts turned to disabled children.
"Having chronic pain is nothing compared to what these children are experiencing," she said. "I've had my childhood, I've ridden my bicycle. I just can't imagine what these children are going through watching their friends play outside and being trapped in this body that doesn't let them play."
She went to HealthLink, the pediatric physical therapy division of Beaufort Memorial Hospital and asked, "Do you have any children who could use these cycles?" Not surprisingly, they did. That was in 2006, and Anne can still easily remember the first child to receive his bike, a recumbent model called the "Banana Peel" with a mesh seat that perfectly cradled his fragile body.
"This little boy had brittle bone disease and his body was so crooked from all the bones he had broken," recalls Anne. "When he came in he was just dragging himself, and we thought, there is no way he's going to ride this thing. But we gave him a cycle and within the first few minutes he was riding like the roadrunner. That was the first time he'd ever been able to get outside and play with his best friend. I've never seen a boy so happy."
The experience was such a moving one for Anne that she knew from there on out what her purpose was. She would help as many children as possible to get outside and play by starting the Little Red Dog Foundation, a non-profit group "providing special cycles for special people." A local print shop donated Little Red Dog t-shirts and one day Anne was wearing hers around when a lady and her daughter saw it and wanted one. The girl, 12-year-old Laura Roddey offered to sell the shirts and in just a couple weeks had raised $700. The Kiwanis Club started contributing a yearly sum to help with operating expenses, and the Fire Department volunteered to assemble the new cycles. Donations began arriving from unknown people who had heard about the Foundation or seen articles in the newspapers, some of whom identified themselves simply as "dog-lovers." Anne was well on her way to fulfilling her wish-and the wishes of many others.
It soon became evident by the stories Anne was hearing from parents, teachers and physical therapists that the cycles were not only upgrading the kids' quality of life, they were also causing significant improvements in their physical condition.
"These cycles are like an addition to their professional physical therapy," said Anne. "They can improve muscle strength, circulation and coordination. We didn't know that was going to happen at first; we just thought we were helping to get kids out of the house and feel more like normal children."
One example of this phenomenon was Leonard, a big kid who suffered from cerebral palsy. His disease required he use what Anne called, "the biggest walker I've ever seen." But after he got his cycle his condition improved so much that he could actually turn loose from his walker without falling over.
"I called up Leonard's mom a couple weeks later to see how he was doing," said Anne. "She said, 'Praise the Lord, praise the Lord! He's out there riding with his cousins right now, praise the Lord!' That was so neat."
Other children who suffer from conditions like muscular dystrophy, spinabifeda, Down syndrome and brain damage have experienced similar improvements. But just as important, from Anne's point of view, is the emotional benefit they get from the simple act of going outside to play.
"It gives them their dignity back," she said. "Some of their parents take them everywhere in that cycle-to school, to the park, to the grocery store. If we can give a child freedom, that is my main thing. Having the wind blow in their faces, that is my main thing."
Last July, the Little Red Dog Foundation became incorporated as a chapter of the charitable organization AMBUCS, which manufactures special mobility equipment such as hand-pedal cycles and adult trikes like the one Anne has. AMBUCS gives away about 2,000 cycles a year through its chapters nationwide, and Anne says she is proud to be a part of the organization. Yet she places even greater emphasis on all the hard work done by local volunteers and the Little Red Dog Foundation's board members. Together they have distributed over 40 bikes in Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton and Colleton counties. But it seems like the more money they raise, the more applications for cycles keep coming in. And so her work continues.
"I remember every single one of these kids," said Anne. "I go to bed thinking about them, I wake up in the morning thinking about them. I barely think about myself anymore, this just makes you feel so good."
So where is the Little Red Dog in all of this? Well, she's likely to be riding in the little basket on her mom's trike, no doubt deep in thought as she composes her next Christmas card.
"Do you know another dog who has a foundation?" asks Anne. "This dog gives to people, when usually it's the other way around."
For more information on the Little Red Dog Foundation, please visit the website www.thelittlereddogfoundation.org. Donations can be sent to:
The Little Red Dog Foundation
c/o South Carolina Bank and Trust
182 B Sea Island Pkwy
Lady's Island, SC 29907