Human Services

Operation Freedom Paws

Four Paws, Two Feet, One Team

aka OFP

Gilroy, CA

Mission

Operation Freedom Paws empowers veterans and individuals with disabilities to restore their freedom to live life by teaching them to train the rescued dogs we match with them, and certifying them as service dog teams. Through a special therapeutic canine-human relationship, all veterans and individuals with disabilities live an enriched life and engage in their communities.

Ruling Year

2011

Principal Officer

Mary Cortani

Main Address

777 First Street PMB 515

Gilroy, CA 95020 USA

Formerly Known As

Operation Freedoms Paws

Keywords

disabled veteran, service dog, PTSD, disabled adult, disabled child, dog rescue, ADA service dog training

EIN

45-2566382

 Number

7058864615

Cause Area (NTEE Code)

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

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Social Media

Programs + Results

What we aim to solve

Disabled veterans and others who have had traumatic experiences live under constant stress. Hypervigilance and the inability to trust their own perceptions make it impossible for them to leave familiar surroundings unaccompanied. Their worlds, and those of their loved ones, gradually become smaller. Recognizing 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. In many cases, they are also a family’s only functional parent and breadwinner; this puts them at risk for secondary PTSD. Doctors prescribe OFP’s service dog training program when traditional treatments have failed their patients. We give them hope for a future---a “new normal”.

Our programs

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

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Service dog training for military veterans

Service dog training for non-veteran disabled persons

Mentor-Trainer Program

Where we work

Our Results

How does this organization measure their results? It's a hard question but an important one. These quantitative program results are self-reported by the organization, illustrating their committment to transparency, learning, and interest in helping the whole sector learn and grow.

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Number of applicants applying for service dogs

TOTALS BY YEAR
Population(s) served

People with disabilities

Related program

Service dog training for non-veteran disabled persons

Type of Metric

Other - describing something else

Direction of Success

Decreasing

Context notes

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 drop in applications.

Clients Reporting Suicidal Thoughts Before and After Training Program

TOTALS BY YEAR
Population(s) served

People with disabilities

Related program

Service dog training for non-veteran disabled persons

Type of Metric

Outcome - describing the effects on people or issues

Direction of Success

Decreasing

Context notes

We administer the same survey when new clients are accepted and when they complete the program after approximately a year. To date, 60 clients have completed both surveys. SEE CHART IN PHOTOS

Clients Reporting Communication Level Before and After Training Program

TOTALS BY YEAR
Population(s) served

People with disabilities

Related program

Service dog training for non-veteran disabled persons

Type of Metric

Outcome - describing the effects on people or issues

Direction of Success

Increasing

Context notes

60 clients have rated their level of communication on a scale of 1-5 when they began the program, and again at graduation. SEE EXPANDED CHART IN PHOTOS

Charting Impact

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

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

What is the organization aiming to accomplish?

What are the organization's key strategies for making this happen?

What are the organization's capabilities for doing this?

How will they know if they are making progress?

What have they accomplished so far and what's next?

The overarching goal of OFP’s program is to first save lives, then improve the quality of those lives so clients are truly living, not just existing. This doesn’t happen overnight. The dog is merely a tool to assist clients through the transition. Our program lasts at least 48 weeks and requires a significant commitment to change from 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 attention to their dogs, giving them focal points during medical episodes. By constantly repeating commands during training, we create habits so clients with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and PTSD gain confidence, despite short-term memory issues. 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 OFP’s program and have marched in the same boots means they don’t need to feel weak or embarrassed if they are triggered….everyone really understands what they’re 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 address past experiences, so we ask them to only look forward when they are at OFP. We ask them 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 have 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.

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 lifestyle, 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 selected is their “first date". In some cases, there are additional meetings before a final decision is made. While not all pairings are successful, often the bond is immediate and quite stunning to observe. 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 hours of group training and 600 hours of "homework". While clients are learning to train their dogs, they often begin to interact with fellow students, and bond over shared experiences with their animals.

The "mentor-trainers" who help teach classes are disabled veterans and 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 aptitude and desire to take on this role.

We always have several rescued dogs on site to be matched with new clients; when dogs are first matched, we keep them at OFP until we are sure the client is committed to the program. Clients who need surgery 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 well-received by our neighboring communities.

OFP Founder Mary Cortani is a veteran Army canine instructor with over 40 years of experiences as a dog-trainer and (much more challenging) handler-trainer. She truthfully says, "The dogs are the easy part!" OFP chooses "mentor-trainers", graduates of the program, to help teach group classes and work 1:1 with students. Most are combat veterans, intimately familiar with the daily challenges and struggles faced by most of our 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 several 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.

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 since 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 instructors for those days when a client is obviously struggling. 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 are proving 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 people and their dogs.

Since OFP’s program began in 2010, the empirical evidence from our clients, family members and our own observations showed that their lives were significantly improved by going through OFP training and having their dogs at their sides. A way to numerically measure progress was needed. In 2016 we created a survey we administer as part of each new client’s intake process. Included are questions about quality of life, communication, sleep patterns and medications. We administer the same survey at the end of formal training, when teams become OFP-certified. Because our program is 48+ weeks, initial results did not begin to appear until 2017. However, it was 2019 before we had enough data to analyze. The results were as expected----a significant increase in both quality of life and communication; a significant decrease in suicidal thoughts and number of medications (see metrics section.) OFP’s program is not static. We are constantly looking for ways to modify, enhance and improve it and make it more relevant to our clients. For example, we received a call from a frantic veteran who was challenged about his dog, then panicked when he was turned away from a federal building because of how he worded his response. Mary was able to defuse the situation. At the next class we began doing a role-playing exercise to help clients develop their personal “mantra” about their dogs and the tasks they perform. Having practiced in front of the group, they are more confident when challenged in public, and their anxiety levels are lower. Their dogs are less likely to react during the experience, and clients know how to explain it if the dogs do react. We’ve been told repeatedly that the exercise has helped clients to calmly maintain control of these situations in a non-confrontational manner. Trainers observe new clients in the group and point out alerts from the dogs. Significant changes in body language and behavior can be seen in many clients only a few weeks after starting the program. Each team progresses at its own pace. The dog's visible focus on the handler is our first indicator of progress. When clients increase their level of participation by consistently making eye contact with instructors and talking with other students, they have overcome a significant trust barrier. Interactions with clients and dogs during lunch at a local restaurant tells us if they are getting out and becoming comfortable in public. Although we answer questions 1:1, we encourage them in the group so everyone hears answers and can provide input. This, along with sharing triumphs and role-playing exercises, prepares students to speak to members of the public. We take teams to speaking engagements and events where we have information tables. With our encouragement, they become less uncomfortable interacting with strangers and learn how to answer questions about their dogs and disabilities. These are skills that enable them to re-engage with their communities.

2019 marks Mary’s 10th 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 400 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 submitting a completed application package and being interviewed. We continue to receive applications every week; our waiting list has over 100 non-veteran applicants. However, not everyone who applies is a good fit for the program. We have refined our pre-screening process so new applicants understand and can think about the dedication, time and energy they would need to commit if accepted. This year we experienced the inevitable passing of dogs that were matched with early clients. We are prepared to support them through their grief, match them with a new dog 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 connected to 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 hear about it and reach out. In 2014 we leased the perfect property for our needs. Thousands of volunteer hours have made the OFP Canine Education Center a “safe space” for clients and dogs. We are in the process of negotiating a purchase price for the property and making plans to secure funds to buy it. Besides OFP’s training center, the facility is a temporary home for the six to twelve rescued dogs we usually have on hand waiting to be matched with new clients. Personnel must be onsite 24/7 both for dogs and clients, so we offer for-fee pet boarding and daycare to the public to cover part of the staffing costs. As with OFP’s public obedience training, 100% of the income from customers goes toward our service dog program. Customers appreciate that their fees are supporting service dog teams and share our mission with others. Kennel income helps level out fluctuations in donor support due to changes in the economy. 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. OFP’s high standard of behavior for our teams is recognized wherever they live or travel, so we are frequently approached by individuals and groups who want to partner with us. We will 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 for dogs and handlers.

External Reviews

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

Photos

Financials

Operation Freedom Paws

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Operations

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

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FREE: Gain immediate access to the following:

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  • Forms 990 for 2018, 2017 and 2016
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Board Leadership Practices

GuideStar worked with BoardSource, the national leader in nonprofit board leadership and governance, to create this section, which enables organizations and donors to transparently share information about essential board leadership practices.

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

BOARD ORIENTATION & 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 & TRANSPARENCY

Have the board and senior staff reviewed the conflict-of-interest policy and completed and signed disclosure statements in the past year?

No

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?

Yes

Organizational Demographics

In order to support nonprofits and gain valuable insight for the sector, GuideStar worked with D5—a five-year initiative to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in philanthropy—in creating a questionnaire. This section is a voluntary questionnaire that empowers organizations to share information on the demographics of who works in and leads organizations. To protect the identity of individuals, we do not display sexual orientation or disability information for organizations with fewer than 15 staff. Any values displayed in this section are percentages of the total number of individuals in each category (e.g. 20% of all Board members for X organization are female).

SOURCE: Self-reported by organization

Gender

This organization reports that it does not collect this information for Part-Time Staff.

Sexual Orientation

This organization reports that it does not collect this information for Board Members, Senior Staff, Full-Time Staff and Part-Time Staff.

Disability

We do not display disability information for organizations with fewer than 15 staff.

Diversity Strategies

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We track retention of staff, board, and volunteers across demographic categories
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We track income levels of staff, senior staff, and board across demographic categories
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We track the age of staff, senior staff, and board
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We track the diversity of vendors (e.g., consultants, professional service firms)
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We have a diversity committee in place
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We have a diversity manager in place
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We have a diversity plan
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We use other methods to support diversity
Diversity notes from the nonprofit
When hiring kennel staff to work with our rescued dogs, customers' dogs and interact with both disabled clients and the public, we identify qualified people, regardless of where they might fall on the diversity matrix. Whenever possible, we hire from the ranks of our disabled clients, especially veterans from all eras. All of OFP's mentor-trainers who teach classes are disabled individuals who have completed our program with their own service dogs. We feel they are best able to help others in similar situations.