Thursday, June 25, 2009

Laugh and be resilient

Whitney Dahl, 20, with the family dog Zoey (left) and her service dog, Alfe, has the neighborhood all to herself. Several homes were destroyed in 2003 by a tornado. The residents left, deciding not to rebuild and leaving driveways to nowhere.

Story and photos by Bruce Thorson

June 24, 2009, Deshler, Neb: I first met Whitney Dahl, 20, at Grandpa’s Crossing, a cafe in Deshler. Before this face-to-face meeting, after hearing about Whitney from a Carleton resident, I phoned Whitney to talk with her about being in the photo documentary project.

I told her I wanted to photograph her. She was born with cerebral palsy. She agreed to the photo shoot.

Two minutes later she phoned me back and said,” I have some pictures of me already. Can't you just use those, maybe scan them into your computer?" "No," I replied. "I have to have my own photographs of you and not from some other photographer." Whitney, like most of the subjects I photograph, doesn't like to have her picture taken.

Whitney is a charming and delightful young woman, full of humor, even if it is a little on the dry side. Her laugh is infectious. She’s going to attend University of Nebraska-Kearney this fall to study psychology. She wants to be a counselor.

And despite today's economic woes, she is hopeful her future job will still be there.

Her primary mode of mobility is a motorized chair. She can walk with the aid of a walker and walks about two blocks every day.

Doctors think she received her condition when, in the womb, her twin died at 12 weeks and from that her oxygen was cut off.

I think Whitney is resilient. A snafu came up with her college dorm situation, how she dealt with the problem and came to a resolution to it tells me that I'm right.

But what is remarkable is how she and her service dog, Alfe, a black lab, might have saved her family's life.

She and her mom, Paula, were in Washington, Kansas for a week. That was where she first met Alfe.

It was June 2003.

During that week, she and Alfe trained together. Alfe would perform tasks for Whitney such as picking up any objects she might accidently drop.

Her dad, Tom, and her two younger sisters drove down to see the new addition to their family.

While they were all away doing the meet-and-greet thing, a tornado struck Deshler, killing one resident. Their home, and four or five neighbor’s homes, was totally destroyed.

Alfe, now nine years old in human years, is being retired. He has arthritis but is still active, still goes for walks with Whitney.

When Whitney heads off to Kearny for college, it will be her first time without Alfe in about the last seven years. I could tell from the sound of her voice and the expression on her face, this separation will be tough.

Who knows what the "ifs" might have been had they not all been away greeting the service dog.

And who knows if keeping the family all away from the deadly tornado was maybe his greatest service of all.

Whitney (above) goes through all the emotions of spending two and half hours, four days a week, studying algebra, as she readies herself for college this fall at UNK. Her proctor is Cindy Mueller, a Deshler resident for 25 years and has known Whitney since the fifth grade.

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