Samantha Hjalmarson (Sam), my current feature for The Empowered Series is someone who hasn’t started a business or a nonprofit, but a community that empowers, encourages, and connects others. I had an opportunity to meet her a few months ago. Both of us have service dogs (though for different disabilities); at our meeting, her dog was much much better behaved than mine (due to Jenny’s cat-litter consumption). In response to her disability, Sam spearheaded and almost exclusively runs the Alberta Service Dog Community, but she’s reaching for different heights as well. And who would want to say no to cute puppies?
Sam developed fairly severe PTSD after years of abuse by her stepfather, though she didn’t realize it for many years. After high school, she joined the military as a signals operator, and the PTSD along with Generalized Anxiety Disorder started causing problems with her ability to cope. After her three year basic engagement was up, Sam left the military primarily due to her mental health (though there were other reasons). Things were manageable until a car accident put her in the hospital for a few days, then left her bed-ridden for weeks after and then it all started going really downhill. PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) have manifested themselves in agoraphobia; Sam spends most of her energy on managing stress levels, and sometimes even leaving the house is a challenge, making work outside the home impossible. One employer after another fired her; even though Sam worked productively when she was present, she couldn’t consistently be at work every day. Eventually she went to a therapist and was diagnosed with PTSD. It eventually hit the point where she was unable to work at all, had to fight to get onto AISH (“another long story by itself!”) and wound up with a Service Dog to help her out.
Sam’s hobbies include making chain mail, finding meditative benefit from baking and cooking. She’s a massive geek, “like Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying level geek”, video games, fantasy books and TV. She enjoys amateur photography and is a cat person (“Honestly if we could have service cats instead of service dogs I would be all over that.”)
Alberta Service Dog Community (ASDC) came out of Sam’s desire to be a productive member of society. Being on disability and taking money from the government left her feeling like she was being a drain so she really felt that urge to do something to help other people. While Sam’s search for a service dog went quite smoothly most people don’t have that same experience. She was lucky, extremely lucky, in that not only did Hope Heels give her a service dog but she also met a group of women who have turned out to be an incredible support network and some of the best friends she’s ever had. Hope Heels went on a hiatus (it’s currently up and running again) but those friendships remain.
Disabilities like Sam’s in particular, but others as well, can be isolating and lonely. Sam wanted to create a support network like she had, so she started ASDC to bring members of the community together. People who get service dogs from schools and programs often have that built in but owner trainers don’t. ASDC isn’t specifically FOR owner trainers, anyone is welcome, but Sam thinks they benefit the most from it, removing the isolation and creating a support system for each other. Much of the discussion and support is virtual (through facebook), but occasional training dates, coffee meetups and other activities are coordinated to get the group together.
More than a Support Group
The ASDC mandate is education and advocacy. People who want to get a service dog are educated on some of the ways they can go about that and about the laws that would protect their rights (there are two in Alberta, the SD Act and the Human Rights Act). The public is also educated about those laws, what service dogs are and the rights of Service Dog Teams.
Advocacy is another big piece of what ASDC does. Not everyone who faces an access challenge with their service dog has the ability to stand up for themselves and their rights so ASDC offers to do that for them. ASDC can provide advice on self-advocacy, or will contact a business or other entity on behalf of someone if they cannot advocate for themselves. “People with disabilities need less obstacles in their lives, not more.”
So what does Sam… Do?
Sam is currently the jill-of-all-trades at ASDC, receiving phone calls, answering any questions that come to the main page, posting the majority of articles, and stepping in to resolve an occasional conflict. Currently, her biggest role at the moment is representing ASDC on the technical committee to develop a National Standard for Service Dogs in Canada. The hope is that this will be adopted across the country and will make it so much easier for owner trainers to be legally recognized and protected, in addition to making service dog standards and access rights clear and consistent across Canada.
In the future, Sam hopes to incorporate ASDC as a charitable foundation, but at this point “it’s a lot of work!” She also hopes to build a website to house resources, educational pieces, a list of trainers who can help people train their own service dogs, a list of schools that service the area. Eventually once the National Standards are completed and implemented, she hopes to do a series of videos explaining how to train for the points required to meet those standards. About the future Web site and access challenges: “Pretty much anything you can imagine someone wanting to know about Service Dogs or what to do with one I want up on that website, including a link for businesses telling them when they are allowed to ask a handler to remove the dog. I think that if a business feels secure in their ability to protect themselves then there will be far fewer access challenges.”
There is more than one way to contribute to society. For many of us, it’s holding down a job and contributing to the economy. If that’s not possible, it’s important to find another way. Sam has created a lively community of service dog handlers from across the province while simultaneously providing support to those who need a place to turn or a question answered. Thanks, Sam, for being “chatty” (you made this post SO easy to write!)