Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Much-needed service dog provided to employee family

For the first time in its history, the We Energies Employes’ Mutual Benefit Association (EMBA) provided a service dog: specifically a long-haired German shepherd named Stryker to a deserving Army veteran, who is also the wife of a We Energies employee. Historically, this group has assisted employees who are sick or injured, helping them focus on recovery and return more quickly to their normal lives.

Katie Stemen, Stryker and Andrew Stemen.
Stryker is no ordinary canine. He has been specially trained to be a service dog providing companionship and aided mobility to U.S. Army veteran Katie Stemen, wife of Andrew Stemen, an employee at the We Energies’ Presque Isle Power Plant in Marquette, Michigan. Katie’s multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq left her with serious health issues. She hoped the best solution to help her with the mental and physical strains of life after the military would be a service dog. But they are expensive to train, and there’s a waiting list to get one. 

Dogs like Stryker can provide life-changing assistance to veterans like Katie. If a cane is dropped, the dog could fetch it. If her balance is lost, he could help keep her upright. If she experiences anxiety and fear in public, having a dog at her side would ease her mind. Andrew – who served in the National Guard– noted the importance of having a “battle buddy.” Andrew explained that in the Army, a soldier always has another soldier as a battle buddy. He thinks that many veterans face losing that sense of security and team mentality when they return home. For a veteran, he said, “a dog helps fill the role of a battle buddy.”

Katie found a trainer in Michigan, Ron Monroe, a former canine officer with the Military Police Corps. He offers a reduced rate to train service dogs for veterans. Monroe’s work is inspired by the difference a service dog makes in the life of a veteran. “The confidence and security a veteran gains from having a German shepherd dog at their side gives them the gift of being more comfortable in public situations,” Monroe said. “It gives them their independence.”

According to Monroe, service dog training is a growing industry and an important element of welcoming veterans home. “Society is realizing one way we can give back to our veterans is to accommodate them with their animals. And the public appreciates seeing a good team work
It was through Monroe that Katie met her service dog. His name was initially Ryker, but Katie asked his name be changed to Stryker after the armored vehicles she operated from while on duty. Katie and Stryker were an immediate match. But the cost of a service dog, even at a reduced rate, was too high for the family. This was where Andrew’s boss, Scott Gygi, a supervisor at the power plant, contacted the EMBA. He had positive experiences with the organization previously, and hoped they might be able to help the Stemens. “Scott was the driving force,” said Andrew. “He got the wheels in motion.”

The EMBA received the request for assistance and it was granted. The committee, made up of We Energies employees, agreed to cover the cost of Stryker’s training. As a fraternal benefit society, the EMBA Emergency Fund operates much like a nonprofit, only one that is based completely on the generosity of employee donations. Andrew has seen the good it is doing for his own family and his work community. “It’s great to see the money you donate come back to the employees locally,” he said.

The EMBA is governed by the state of Wisconsin’s Office of the Commissioner of Insurance and is licensed to do business in Wisconsin and Michigan. It currently has 15 chapters that each elect a director along with six company-appointed directors to comprise its board. The organization dates back to 1912, when its original purpose was to provide benefits and medical care to employees and their families.

The emergency fund started not long after to assist employees who fell on hard times. “Things happen,” EMBA Secretary Joe Kopinski said. “You’ll never know when they’ll happen, and that fund is there when they do. It’s a really neat thing and a really proud thing for me to be able to deliver a check to someone in need and see the relief that comes when the financial burden is taken off their shoulders.”

Andrew echoes that desire for normalcy. He and Katie hope having a service dog will help and they are looking forward to that. “The EMBA is helping us out big time,” said Andrew. “It takes a big burden off of us, and it’s made the experience much more enjoyable and easier to do, and we are very grateful for that.”

Stryker and Katie during the 
training process.
Learn more about trainer Ron Monroe on Facebook: Max's K9 Obedience.

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