By Sallie James
Five years after two of her students were shot to death in her classroom, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teacher is in line to get a service dog so she can better navigate the complexities of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Friends are hoping that community members will pitch in to help Ivy Schamis cover the cost of the highly-trained K-9 from Steadfast Service Dogs because several Parkland-based organizations rejected her pleas for help, said longtime friend Myra Mazlin. A fully trained service dog from Steadfast can cost as much as $17,000.
“What a horrible experience,” Mazlin said. “I feel very strongly about the way she has been treated by the system. Everyone she started contacting related to the shooting all of a sudden had a reason why they couldn’t (help), and I became infuriated.”
Steadfast Service Dogs 501(3)(c) accepts donations through the Network for Good. To date, the fund has about $5,300.
Schamis was teaching a social studies class on the Holocaust on February 14, 2018, when (now convicted killer) Nikolas Cruz poked his AR-15 through a window and sprayed her classroom with bullets. High school students Helena Ramsay and Nicholas Dworet, both 17, died in the hail of gunfire.
Fourteen students and three staff members died at the school that day. Schamis was one of three teachers who had students murdered in their classrooms.
“We were learning how to combat hate,” Schamis recalled of the lesson she was teaching when all hell broke loose. “We got two weeks off to go to all the funerals and vigils.”
That was five years ago, and Schamis still jumps whenever she hears a loud noise. She is bedeviled by guilt and suffers panic attacks regularly.
The 20-year teacher stayed at the high school for two years after the attack to support her traumatized students, then resigned from stress, moving with her husband to Washington, D.C., to escape the horrific memories. Schamis no longer teaches and has difficulty reconciling the horror she watched unfold that day.
“I no longer want to be responsible for students,” Schamis said. Immobilized by PTSD, she hopes a service dog will help her reclaim parts of her life. But when she began inquiring about possible assistance, she was met with “no” after “no.”
Parkland Cares, a nonprofit formed after the mass shooting, told her they do not fund individual aid, speakers, or affected parties’ personal expenses. Executive director Stacey Udine said the organization provides grants to local South Florida nonprofit organizations that offer trauma-informed care and counseling to those affected by trauma.
“Unfortunately, even though dog therapy is an important aid to individuals affected by trauma and is an effective form of therapy, it does not fit within our realm, and so we were unable to fill Ivy’s request,” Udine said in an email.
Victims Compensation of Florida also declined to help, Schamis said. However, Sarah Franco, CEO of Eagles Haven, said the organization will do what it can to help.
“While Eagles’ Haven does not currently have the costs of service dogs in our existing budget, we are constantly assessing and supporting the ever-changing needs of the MSD community even five years after the tragedy,” Franco said. “We plan to continue to do everything in our power to support Ivy, as we do with all of our clients who were impacted by the MSD shooting. We will be connecting her to charities with a service dog mission, all social media fundraising platforms, and do everything we humanly can to help her raise the funds she needs to realize her goal of buying a service dog.”
Schamis, who didn’t get her full pension because she quit, said she feels abandoned by the system.
“I didn’t think it would be this hard,” she said. She dreams of the day she will have her dog to help her through the dark days.
Gwen Sadowski, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Steadfast Service Dogs with her husband Andre in Fayetteville, NC, said the cost of each dog is determined on a sliding scale based on ability to pay. The highly-trained dogs are bred for temperament and can alert to seizures and even wake their handlers from nightmares, responding to minute changes in body language.
Training can take up to 18 months, she said. Steadfast Service Dogs will have provided match five teachers and two students with service dogs once Schamis’ match is complete, said Andre Sadowski, a former police officer who also suffers from PTSD.
“Our goal is to positively make meaningful differences in Ivy’s life. Ivy told me that she fully believes she’ll be in another school shooting,” Gwen Sadowski said. “It’s not like she believes that it was a one-time thing for her. She tries to live her life, but PTSD, memories, and trauma cloud it. The dog’s job is to remediate some of the symptoms, the panic attacks, the nightmares, and the overwhelming emotion.”
“We look at a service dog as an additional item in a treatment toolkit,” she said.
Schamis will be introduced to three purpose-bred German Shepherd puppies in about three weeks. Sadowski said the pups were selected as possible matches based on temperament and aptitude.
Then, Schamis and the puppies will choose each other. Sadowski said that the puppies will be about 12 weeks old when they are matched.
“I have a ton of respect for the people we get to work with because I watched them grow as they work with their dogs and come out of their shells, sometimes to be able to do things they couldn’t do before,” Gwen Sadowski said. “There’s a huge amount of strength that they didn’t know that they had. It’s impressive. So you know, I really love being able to do this.”
- Sallie James is a veteran reporter/blogger/copywriter who spent most of her writing career in South Florida, including 22 years at the Sun Sentinel. She has also freelanced for The Coastal Star, South Florida Gay News & Florida Weekly. Sallie is the mother of grown boy/girl twins, a Guardian ad Litem, an animal rescuer, and a longtime Tamarac resident. She earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from Indiana University.
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