PLATINUM2024

Operation Freedom Paws

Four Paws, Two Feet, One Team

aka OFP   |   Gilroy, CA   |  www.operationfreedompaws.org

Mission

Operation Freedom Paws empowers veterans, first responders, children and other individuals with disabilities to restore their freedom to live life.

Ruling year info

2011

Founder and Executive Director

Mary Cortani

Main address

777 First Street PMB 515

Gilroy, CA 95020 USA

Show more contact info

Formerly known as

Operation Freedoms Paws

EIN

45-2566382

NTEE code info

Services to Promote the Independence of Specific Populations (P80)

Human Services - Multipurpose and Other N.E.C. (P99)

Animal Training, Behavior (D61)

IRS filing requirement

This organization is required to file an IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ.

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Communication

Programs and results

What we aim to solve

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Disabled veterans and other adults and children with disabling injuries or illnesses live under constant stress. Hypervigilance and an inability to trust their own perceptions can make it impossible for them to leave familiar surroundings unaccompanied. Their worlds, and those of their loved ones, gradually become smaller. Believing they have become a burden on friends and family, and lost their independence and self-respect drives them into severe depression---a path that can end in suicide. The publicized 22 veterans a day who take their own lives does not include numbers from all U.S. states, female or homeless veterans. Caregivers, in addition to ensuring loved ones get the medical care they need, are on 24/7 suicide watch. They are also a family's only functional parent and breadwinner, putting them at risk for secondary PTS. Doctors prescribe OFP's service dog training program when traditional treatments are ineffective. We give them hope for a future---a new normal.

Our programs

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

What are the organization's current programs, how do they measure success, and who do the programs serve?

Service Dog Training for Veterans and First Responders

Operation Freedom Paws provides a comprehensive 48-week service dog program to teach veterans and first responders with disabilities to use dogs to help manage their medical conditions. The dogs are evaluated and chosen from shelters. Newly accepted clients are matched with dogs that meet their individual medical, physical and psychological needs. Starting with general obedience, clients and dogs learn together at their own pace. Soon after being matched, the dogs begin to recognize and alert their handlers to changes in body chemistry that relate to their medical issues. OFP provides dogs, training, veterinary care, dog food, equipment and group activities to clients and their families at no charge. OFP’s average cost per team is $20,000. A licensed therapist is present at each class, because clients are not just training a dog---they are working hard to change themselves. After graduating from the program, clients and their families are welcome to continue attending OFP’s classes and activities.

Population(s) Served
Veterans
Families
Emergency responders
People with disabilities

Although military veterans and first responders are our primary target demographic, when funding permits we accept non-veteran adults and some young adults into the same program. They make up between 20% and 25% or our clientele.

Population(s) Served
People with disabilities
Adults
Adolescents
Families

Clients who complete the program with a service dog and who demonstrate an aptitude and desire to train others are offered the opportunity to participate in OFP's Mentor Trainer Program. For the clients chosen, this program increases confidence, leadership and communication skills. Knowing that their instructors have been through the program helps clients develop trust in the process.

Population(s) Served
Veterans
People with disabilities

Operation Freedom Paws offers dog obedience classes and boarding to the public. Fees received from these customers go directly to the service dog program. To fulfil OFP's mission, a kennel facility staffed 24/7/365 for animals waiting to be matched, as well as for current clients' dogs, is critical. The kennel enables us to reduce wait times for a dog match, ensure a solid bond with the animals we've chosen before clients take them home, and give handlers a place to confidently leave their service dogs in the event of hospital stays. Obedience classes for pet owners contribute to dog safety and health in the surrounding communities, and educate residents about our service dog program. Openings in kennel staff are sometimes filled with mature adolescents, giving them the opportunity to start their lives in the work world and assume responsibilities. Whenever practical, we hire veterans and other service dog clients.

Population(s) Served
Adults
Unemployed people
Adolescents
Veterans

Where we work

Awards

Top Ten CNN Hero 2012

CNN

2011 Hero (Animal Category) 2011

Napa County Red Cross

Corporate Philanthropy Award 2016

Silicon Valley / San Jose Business Journal

Women of Influence Award 2018

Silicon Valley / San Jose Business Journal

Central Coast Clara Barton Award 2016

Red Cross

KSBW Central Coast 2015

Jefferson Award for Public Service

Coretta Scott King Award (Santa Clara Valley) 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr

Nonprofit of the Year 2021

Gilroy Chamber of Commerce

Woman of the Year 2022

California State Senate, 17th District

Affiliations & memberships

Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans 2019

Our results

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

How does this organization measure their results? It's a hard question but an important one.

Number of applicants applying for service dogs

This metric is no longer tracked.
Totals By Year
Population(s) Served

People with disabilities, Emergency responders, Veterans, People with diseases and illnesses

Related Program

Service Dog Training for Veterans and First Responders

Type of Metric

Context - describing the issue we work on

Direction of Success

Decreasing

Context Notes

COVID & a better understanding by medical personnel & the public of the difference between a highly-trained service dog and an emotional support animal accounts for the leveling off in applications.

Our Sustainable Development Goals

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Learn more about Sustainable Development Goals.

Goals & Strategy

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Learn about the organization's key goals, strategies, capabilities, and progress.

Charting impact

Four powerful questions that require reflection about what really matters - results.

The overarching goal of OFPs program is first to save lives, then improve the quality of those lives so clients are truly living, not just existing. This does not happen overnight. The dog is one tool that assists clients through the transition. Our program lasts at least 48 weeks and requires a significant commitment to change by each client.

By matching compatible dogs rescued from shelters, we give clients hope. By showing clients we have experience with their medical issues, we begin to earn their trust. Group training sessions are twice a week, so clients must leave their homes and be around other people. Clients learn to communicate with their dogs; communications improve with family members and medical professionals. We teach clients to pay close attention to their dogs' behavior. Changes in behavior can be alerts to impending medical episodes, such as fluctuations in blood sugar, migraines, pain, etc. By constantly repeating commands during training, we create habits so clients with short-term memory issues from traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and PTS gain confidence. A licensed therapist is present at every training session for clients or caregivers who need immediate assistance from a mental health professional because they are in crisis, or just having a lousy day. Between the dog, staff and therapists, clients begin to feel like valued parts of a greater whole. Knowing the mentor-trainers instructing them come from OFPs program and have marched in the same boots means they do not need to feel weak or embarrassed if they are triggered. Everyone genuinely understands what they are going through. The realization that they are not alone in these experiences goes a long way toward helping clients heal. All are patients of psychiatrists or psychologists who typically ask them to work through past experiences, so we ask them to only look forward when they are at OFP. We ask new clients to think about specific goals, which often center around reconnecting with children. Some of these are adult children, estranged after decades of miscommunication. We encourage family involvement in the program by extending invitations to attend classes and participate in activities.

We are aiming to accomplish miracles with people who had written off their lives, but decided to try one last thing. In the beginning, the only thing keeping them alive may be that dog that now depends on them. It may be the first thing in a long time that has made them smile. Over time, we will give them tools to cope with their challenges and make them want to live for themselves and their loved ones.

Clients are referred to OFP by physicians or psychiatrists who believe their patients can benefit from a service dog. Upon receiving the doctor's letter and potential client's application, we interview the person about quality of life, interests, past and current activities, and what s/he wants to do that seems out of reach because of the disability. Choosing the right dog to meet each of those needs is critical to the client's success. During this interview we emphasize the level of commitment required, explain the program in detail, and review/sign our contract of understanding.

The initial meeting between a client and the dog OFP selects is their first date", and the new client's first trust exercise. Although there may be additional meetings before a final decision is made, sometimes changes we see in clients are dramatic and immediate: they meet the dog, and both entities actually transform before our eyes...as if their souls had been waiting to find each other. If dog and client are clearly a "match", training begins immediately with basic leash handling.

During the approximately 48 weeks that follow, handler and dog will work together at their own pace. They will gradually build a repertoire of commands and behaviors designed to increase the client's independence and confidence, and improve his/her everyday life. Each person, dog and disability is unique, so besides the common elements everyone learns, commands are taught (and often invented) to address issues specific to each team. Teams are expected to complete 300-400 hours of group training and 600 hours of "homework". While clients are learning to train their dogs, we encourage them to interact with fellow students so they connect over shared experiences with their animals.

The "mentor-trainers" who teach group classes are graduates of OFP's service dog program. All showed aptitude for working with both people and dogs while they were in training, and were eager to give back to the program by helping new clients overcome their own hurdles. We watch for students who may have the skill and desire to take on this role, then "apprentice" those who express an interest in sharing the skills they have learned.

We always have several rescued dogs on site to be matched with new clients; when dogs are first matched, they live at the OFP kennel until we are sure the client is committed to the program. Clients who need in-patient medical treatment are able to leave their dogs with us as well. At least 2 staff members are scheduled at all times to care for our dogs. To help offset employee payroll and costs, we offer boarding and daycare to the public, as well as obedience classes. These services have been enthusiastically received by the neighboring communities.

OFP Founder Mary Cortani is a veteran Army canine instructor with over 45 years of experience as a dog-trainer and (much more challenging) handler-trainer. She truthfully says, "The dogs are the easy part!" Mary chooses graduates of the program to help teach group classes and work 1:1 with students. Most of these "mentor-trainers" are military veterans, intimately familiar with the daily challenges and struggles faced by other clients.

Publicity from Mary's 2012 Top Ten CNN Hero designation catapulted OFP, then a fledgling nonprofit, into the global limelight. Since then she has been honored with many national and local awards. OFP's staff and Board members have extensive business experience, which serves us well in the competitive nonprofit arena. We enlist the support of volunteers to help with our fundraising events, and we make use of social media to keep our organization foremost in the minds of supporters. We publish a quarterly electronic newsletter, and routinely give presentations to raise awareness about our mission and program. We actively pursue relationships with like-minded private foundations, businesses and funding organizations.

OFP has partnered with the Stella Center to evaluate our clients with PTS to see if the Stellate Ganglion Block can be a part of their successful treatment and recovery. A significant percentage of the OFP clients who have had this treatment have shown improvement.

OFP formally collaborates with three California nonprofits: DreamPower Horsemanship (DPH), Guide Dogs of the Desert, and Camp Tuolumne Trails. DPH has provided equine therapy for Bay Area children, adults and veterans for over a decade. Their staff includes licensed therapists and family counselors. Since 2013, OFP has contracted with DPH to provide a staff member at each training session. Having a professional therapist available adds a level of confidence for OFP's mentor-trainers on days when a client is obviously struggling in class. Veterans regard these therapists, unlike their VA counselors, as someone they can talk to informally, off the record, and without having to wait months for an appointment. From Guide Dogs of the Desert (GDD), OFP has been the fortunate recipient of several "career change dogs". These dogs, bred and trained to serve, (but deemed too exuberant for guide tasks,) would otherwise have become highly-trained pets. Instead, they have proven to be a perfect fit for OFP's program. Family participation is an important element of our program. Camp Tuolumne Trails (CTT) has partnered with OFP since 2011 to provide clients and their families off-season access to its facility near Yosemite. Designed for full handicapped access, CTT's unplugged activities, beautiful grounds and relaxed atmosphere are ideal for encouraging communications between individuals with their service dogs, family members, and others.

2024 marks Marys 14th year of teaching veterans and others with disabilities to train dogs for their own medical needs. We now track more data points to identify patterns that could help us improve the program. To date, we have accepted over 535 clients and their families. Many lives have been changed through hard work and partnership with OFP-trained service dogs. We have significantly reduced the time that elapses between a veteran or first-responder submitting a completed application package and being invited to interview. We routinely receive new applications, and the waiting list hovers at about 100 applicants, most of whom are non-veteran adults. However, not everyone who applies is a good fit for the program. In 2023 we added a 1-hour session with a retired volunteer therapist to our pre-screening process. This step adds a licensed professional's input into the applicant's evaluation before we consider a face-to-face interview. It is critical that we invest OFP's limited resources in applicants who are willing and able to commit the level of work, dedication, time and energy they need to succeed.

Clients experience the inevitable passing of dogs that have become their lifelines. We are prepared to support them through their grief, match them with another dog as needed, and help them begin to re-focus on the future. Some will not need another dog because they have developed skills to cope with their issues without a 24/7 service dog. Others will always need a dog at their sides for specific medical needs. We stay in contact with program graduates, encouraging them to return for events and periodic training. Because we have established relationships with family members, if a client is struggling for any reason, we often hear about it and reach out.

We partnered in 2020 with a Johns-Hopkins PhD candidate to collect information about how veteran service dog handlers with PTS use their dogs to help them cope with their disability. The study has been completed and results are being tabulated to help bolster the usefulness of service dogs as part of successful treatment for many veterans with PTS.

The need for service dogs nationwide continues to grow, along with publicized incidents of dogs, handlers or businesses that have violated ADA service dog guidelines. OFPs high standard of behavior for our teams is recognized wherever they live, work or travel, so we are frequently approached by individuals and groups who want to partner with us. We remain true to our mission while educating people and businesses about how trained service dogs can assist disabled people, and emphasizing the importance of proper training and behaviors of service dogs and their handlers under the law.

How we listen

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Seeking feedback from people served makes programs more responsive and effective. Here’s how this organization is listening.

done We demonstrated a willingness to learn more by reviewing resources about feedback practice.
done We shared information about our current feedback practices.
  • How is your organization using feedback from the people you serve?

    To identify and remedy poor client service experiences, To identify bright spots and enhance positive service experiences, To make fundamental changes to our programs and/or operations, To strengthen relationships with the people we serve, To understand people's needs and how we can help them achieve their goals

  • Which of the following feedback practices does your organization routinely carry out?

    We aim to collect feedback from as many people we serve as possible, We take steps to ensure people feel comfortable being honest with us, We look for patterns in feedback based on people’s interactions with us (e.g., site, frequency of service, etc.), We engage the people who provide feedback in looking for ways we can improve in response, We act on the feedback we receive

  • What challenges does the organization face when collecting feedback?

    The people we serve tell us they find data collection burdensome, Most people say they don't want anything to change!

Financials

Operation Freedom Paws
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Operations

The people, governance practices, and partners that make the organization tick.

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Connect with nonprofit leaders

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Build relationships with key people who manage and lead nonprofit organizations with GuideStar Pro. Try a low commitment monthly plan today.

  • Analyze a variety of pre-calculated financial metrics
  • Access beautifully interactive analysis and comparison tools
  • Compare nonprofit financials to similar organizations

Want to see how you can enhance your nonprofit research and unlock more insights? Learn More about GuideStar Pro.

Operation Freedom Paws

Board of directors
as of 02/26/2024
SOURCE: Self-reported by organization
Board chair

Mary Cortani

Operation Freedom Paws

Term: 2011 -

Mary Cortani

Operation Freedom Paws

Diane Jimenez

No Affiliation

Nicole Martinez

No Affiliation

Renee Hammer

Operation Freedom Paws

Board leadership practices

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

GuideStar worked with BoardSource, the national leader in nonprofit board leadership and governance, to create this section.

  • Board orientation and education
    Does the board conduct a formal orientation for new board members and require all board members to sign a written agreement regarding their roles, responsibilities, and expectations? Yes
  • CEO oversight
    Has the board conducted a formal, written assessment of the chief executive within the past year ? Yes
  • Ethics and transparency
    Have the board and senior staff reviewed the conflict-of-interest policy and completed and signed disclosure statements in the past year? Not applicable
  • Board composition
    Does the board ensure an inclusive board member recruitment process that results in diversity of thought and leadership? Yes
  • Board performance
    Has the board conducted a formal, written self-assessment of its performance within the past three years? Not applicable