Paws for a Cause is a series where we chat with our friends, clients, and peers in our local Colorado community. It’s a chance to check in and see how everyone’s doing in business and life.
Today we’re talking to Michele Ostrander, President, and CEO of Freedom Service Dogs. We’ve worked with them on various print projects over the past few years, such as branded holiday cards and thank you cards.
YellowDog: Hello Michele! Give us the short version of your nonprofit’s mission. What population or cause do you serve?
Michele Ostrander: Freedom Service Dogs of America (FSD) transforms lives by partnering people with custom-trained assistance dogs. Our clients include veterans with PTSD, children, and teens with autism and other neurocognitive disabilities. We also serve individuals with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and traumatic brain injury.
Additionally, we provide professional therapy dogs to serve as partners for clinicians, therapists, law enforcement, and more. Freedom Service Dogs was founded in 1987 and has since graduated hundreds of client-dog teams and provided lifetime support to nearly 200 active teams at no cost to our clients.
YD: How and when did your nonprofit start?
MO: Freedom Service Dogs was founded in 1987 as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization by Michael and PJ Roche. The Roches worked tirelessly to transform FSD from a local, two-person organization to one of the leading service dog training organizations in the country at a time when the assistance dog industry was in the early stages of development.
YD: What was your journey into your role as the head/director? How did you get here?
MO: My appreciation for volunteerism started when I was young. I’d go door-to-door with my mom, collecting for UNICEF. She taught me the importance of recognizing that each of us has the opportunity to make someone else’s life better, and I’ve tried to do that throughout my life.
I obtained my first job working in social services while finishing my master’s degree in psychology from St. Bonaventure University. In that job, I provided case management to individuals with developmental disabilities who lived in group homes, institutions, and private homes. I continued to work with individuals with disabilities in various roles for the next few years.
As I grew in my career, I began volunteering at a domestic violence and sexual assault program, answering the hotline and accompanying survivors of rape to the hospital for evidence collection. I quickly understood that my passion was helping women, and I transitioned into working with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. I worked my way up to Vice President of Community Education at the Houston Area Women’s Center.
At that time, I saw a job announcement for an Executive Director at Tahoe Women’s Services in North Lake Tahoe. I felt I wanted to take on more career responsibilities—and I wanted to move to the mountains! I was hired as the Executive Director, moved to Lake Tahoe, and fell in love with the west. After working in the domestic violence and sexual assault field for thirteen years, I became the CEO for Susan G. Komen Houston, helping uninsured or underinsured women and men access life-saving breast cancer care. After a few years, I had the opportunity to move to Colorado to become the President and CEO for Susan G. Komen Colorado.
After ten years, helping survivors of breast cancer, I stepped back and reflected on where I wanted to go next. I knew I wanted to help women, and I kept remembering the horrifying stories of women in the military being sexually assaulted by their fellow servicemen from my days in the field. That is when I found Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) in 2016.
FSD transforms lives by providing custom-trained service dogs to people with disabilities—including veterans with post-traumatic stress due to military sexual trauma. When individuals come to FSD, it is a joyous time because they are being matched with their service dog, who will help change their lives. Of course, FSD helps more than veterans. We also serve children with autism and other neurocognitive disabilities and teens and adults with mobility disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries.
It’s been a joy to work at FSD—seeing the magic that occurs when a client meets their service dog and seeing how the service dog changes their lives for the better. And besides, who can have a bad day when we have thirty to forty puppies and dogs in the office!
YD: COVID-19 has been a part of our lives throughout 2021. What have you learned about your organization, and/or how have you adapted in 2021?
MO: Covid taught us that the FSD staff are resilient, determined, and able to pivot and pivot again when necessary. Despite having to shut down operations entirely for eight weeks, working split shifts to reduce the number of staff in the training facility, and having half the staff work from home, we figured out how to safely get leashes of FSD service dogs into the hands of individuals who needed them.
FSD staff did whatever was necessary throughout the pandemic to ensure our puppies and dogs had the care and training they needed to become service dogs. We continued to work with clients—albeit more through zoom than in-person—to complete the necessary training to graduate with their FSD service dogs. Despite the pandemic, we graduated more dogs in 2020 than we did in 2019!
YD: What are the top three items on a “wishlist” for your organization?
MO: 1. Monetary donations in any amount are vital to making our mission possible: freedomservicedogs.org/donate. 2. Items from our Amazon wishlist: freedomservicedogs.org/ways-to-give. 3. Volunteers, especially puppy raisers: freedomservicedogs.org/volunteer.
YD: Describe your organization in three words.
MO: Dogs Changing Lives.
YD: Love it! Thanks for sharing your story!
Now for some friendly rapid-fire questions:
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
Well, dogs, of course!
Early bird or night owl?
Favorite local beer?
More of a Carboy Viognier gal…
What’s your best party trick?
I can twirl a fire baton!
What show are you currently binging?
Any book you’re currently reading?
I tend to read a few at a time – currently on my nightstand are Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, and Palmares by Gayl Jones.
What are you looking forward to most in 2022?
Getting stamps in my passport!
YD: Thanks, Michele! It has been wonderful to hear your story and learn about how many lives you touch with your service dogs!
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Would YOU like to be featured in the Paws for a Cause Interview Series?
We’re always looking for local nonprofit organizations to feature in this series. Get in touch to find out more!