They met as strangers, she from Oregon State University, he fresh out of prison. Their relationship began in California’s wine country, where, for two weeks, they took careful measure of commonality, trust and, at unforeseen junctures, doubt.
She didn’t need him--was doing just fine without him but at the same time was open to possibilities. The timing for a new relationship was either perfect or perfectly wrong, as she was coming to terms with her mother’s recent death, which was sudden and gave no warning. Strokes rarely do.
They had spoken on the telephone several times the week she died. Their conversations were unremarkable as her mother described her work on a church newsletter. They said good-bye not knowing it would be forever.
He, on the other hand, knew only of life. He was young, lacking perspective and even expectation about living on the outs. He had never roamed freely because containment is why prisons exist. He knew only how to follow orders.
And so it was.
His name was Wilde (the “e” being critical) part Golden Retriever, part Labrador, and he was trained as a service dog. Her name was Shelley Griffiths, resident director at McNary Hall.
Born with cerebral palsy, Griffiths never has been one to acquiesce to physical limitations. She traverses campus on a scooter, and students assist her in the office as she goes about her job of administering to issues ranging from roommates who haven’t showered for two weeks, to the volatile pressures of college life.
“I love being a part of their growth,” she says of students. “It’s a huge transition for them. It’s trying at times, but it’s also very rewarding.”
Griffiths graduated from schools in Arkansas, first Hendrix College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, then the University of Central Arkansas, where she received a master’s degree in counseling.
In her 22 years of residential administration, five of them at OSU, she has found students to be open-minded about their lives and hers, creating a shared level of respect.
“They don’t put limitations on me,” she says. “They may not know what my disability is, but they’re open to learning. They’re never condescending or judgmental.”
Griffiths is fiercely independent, the result of parents who wouldn’t allow her to feel sorry for herself. When she landed her first job in Washington, they drove her from Arkansas, dropped her off, turned around and went home.
“That’s the best thing they could have done for me,” Griffiths says. “It taught me to be self-sufficient and gave me independence.”
Cerebral Palsy is not an excuse, she says. It is motivation. Her job requires a profound understanding of problem-solving, human behavior and listening. A well-weighted sense of humor is helpful for the occasional absurdity.
“It’s made me who I am. It has given me compassion and helped me be more understanding. I wouldn’t change anything about who I am.”
Griffiths’ most troublesome encounters have nothing to do with cerebral palsy. They are the result of those who see only the wheelchair and cast assumptions.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say that if I ate certain foods, I’d be cured. If I love God, I’ll be healed and stuff like that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me to begin with, so what needs to be healed?”
A service dog is trained to respond to some 40 commands, including picking up items that are dropped to the floor, hitting the light switch, opening and closing doors, retrieving food items from refrigerators and grocery shelves. He can even help her with her jacket.
Wilde was raised in a women’s prison, the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, where inmates under the guidance of volunteers work one-on-one with dogs for 14 months before the dogs are sent to trainers at Canine Companion for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa.
In Griffiths’ case, compatibility was based on the theory that opposites compliment each other. He was patient and unhurried, capable of maintaining composure in the midst of a fast pace. She by contrast was daring and quick to the task. Type A, Type B. A partnership of temperaments.
“He was a good energy level for Shelley and will be able to keep up with her active lifestyle managing a college dorm and living on a college campus,” says Lauren Rignel, CCI program manager and training instructor. “It was a good fit for both of them.”
Accompanying Griffiths to CCI was Jodi Nelson, OSU’s executive assistant to the vice provost for Student Affairs. A few months earlier, she and Griffiths were talking, and Griffiths mentioned how she and her mother were going to CCI to train for a service dog.
Nelson asked that Griffiths contact her if she needed help. When her mother died, Griffiths needed help. She telephoned Nelson from the airport as she was returning home.
“Did you really mean what you said?” she asked.
In need of an assistant, required for the training, she asked Nelson if she might be able to accompany her to the two-week program.
Nelson said she needed only to clear things at work and home. On Oct. 28, they boarded a plane and began a journey without knowing how much their lives were about to change.
Midway through the program, Nelson’s 90-year-old father was hospitalized. She awaited word, pondering whether she should return home and find someone to replace her in assisting Griffiths.
Her father’s condition quickly improved, however, and Nelson remained in Santa Rosa, where the shared slap of mortality created a bond between the two women as they comforted each other through the program.
The training was demanding and fast-paced. Students were required to take their dogs off campus, to restaurants and other public settings where Nelson saw firsthand what Griffiths had experienced all her life.
“I would hear people talking in front of her as if she was invisible,” Nelson says. “When I told Shelley about it, she giggled and said, ‘Welcome to my world.’”
The program, funded by donations and providing dogs for free, concluded with a surprisingly formal graduation ceremony in which dogs’ leashes were transferred from the original puppy raiser to new owner, and with that they returned home.
Three days later, Nelson received more bad news. Her father-in-law fell while walking in a park suffering brain injuries that would not heal. He died the day before Thanksgiving.
As loved ones gathered to honor his life, there was a moment when Nelson took notice of grandchildren and great-grandchildren whose mere presence restored balance to the upward tilt caused by loss.
“It was a reminder of the circle of life,” she says.
And sometimes reminders have black hair, brown eyes, four legs and a tail. Wilde will allow Griffiths to see greater possibilities in life. Her bucket list has grown heavier since Wilde entered her life.
She says she would like to do more traveling, and among her wishes, there’s one that Wilde may not want to hear about: she has always wanted to skydive.
More bad news for Wilde: they make parachutes for dogs.
Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki
Feature story page photo courtesy of CCI