Hero and Bridget and the viral graduation picture
CHAMPAIGN — Hero the chocolate Lab is quite the Internet celebrity these days, courtesy of a custom graduation gown and a snapshot that went viral.
Recent University of Illinois graduate Bridget Evans, 24, of Orland Park and her 6-year-old service dog, Hero, became social-media darlings after a photo of them clad in matching blue caps and gowns at a UI graduation ceremony was posted online. A flurry of interviews with television and websites followed.
"Oh my gosh, isn't it crazy?" Evans said by phone Friday from her parents' home in Orland Park.
The photo showed Evans, who has spina bifida, and Hero making their way to the State Farm Center podium to receive her master's degree in community health. The College of Applied Health Sciences' ceremony was May 11, the Saturday of graduation weekend, and a Reddit user posted the photo the following day.
A friend emailed her about it on Monday, and Evans added a new photo to the thread that better showed off Hero's gown.
"The next thing I know, it's gone literally viral," she said.
Said Reddit user AndreThreeHundred: "This picture is everything that is right in the world," and later, "You and your dog are my hero." (The photo also spurred a few jokes, about Hero getting his "dog-torate" and being "valedogtorian.")
After a full day of doctor's appointments Tuesday, Evans came home to find her Facebook page "blowing up."
Huffington Post put together an item about the photo, and she was interviewed for stories on Today.com and People.com, among others.
"It's been a weeklong celebration of my graduation. Hero and I are very much loving it," Evans said.
Two years ago, for her undergraduate commencement, Evans had tied a cap around her service dog at the time, Coal (who at age 13 is now living the life in retirement at her parents' home).
But "it didn't fit very well, and it was hanging onto his neck when he walked across the stage," she said. "This time I knew I had to step it up a little bit."
When Evans went to get measured for her cap and gown with Hero, representatives from Herff Jones floated the idea of a service-dog gown. She loved it.
"Hero has helped me so much through my master's degree," she said. "He has gone to every class with me, he has stayed up with me while I write papers and study for exams, he turns on lights for me, pulls me through the snow across campus to make sure I make it to class on time. It was definitely a team effort to get me through graduation."
A family video of the ceremony shows Hero walking across the stage with Evans to loud applause as the presenter says, "Bridget Evans and her service dog, Hero Evans." From the crowd her mother shouts, "That's my daughter!"
"It's been a fun, crazy week," Evans said. "I'm just so honored that people are happy and enjoying the photo."
The photo has also raised awareness about service dogs and how valuable they are to people with disabilities, especially in higher education, Evans said. She hopes it will encourage those with disabilities to pursue a college degree, perhaps at the UI.
It's a topic dear to Evans' heart. A little over two years ago, she founded a service-dog training program on campus that so far has trained five dogs to help others with disabilities. Student volunteers train the dogs, which are given free to people who need a service companion.
Evans' master's thesis focused on the Illini Service Dogs organization, which she said has changed perceptions among students about disability culture and accessibility issues. The group, which has 50 members, is funded by donations, and she'd love to expand.
Evans has trained both of her own service dogs. She first applied for one when she was 6, through multiple national organizations, but the waiting lists were endless. When she was 11, her parents took matters into their own hands and brought home Coal, a black Labrador Retriever. Mary and David Evans thought it would help their daughter get through high school and college.
Evans, who had volunteered for other service-dog organizations, trained Coal herself, then started training dogs for other people with disabilities.
When Evans got to the UI, Coal attracted lots of attention from students who expressed interest in training dogs, too. Working with the UI and a Midwest service-dog agency, she founded Illini Service Dogs, the first program of its kind on a college campus.
Evans will continue to oversee the program from afar next year as she pursues a job in hospital administration. No stranger to hospitals herself after 37 surgeries, she'd like to be a patient advocate while making administrative decisions. (Her service dogs have been with her through every hospital stay.)
Evans hopes the recent publicity will shed light on people with disabilities and "how successful they can be. There are limitations, definitely, but you've got to break down barriers and overcome as many obstacles as you can."
With that in mind, she gave Hero's gown back to Herff Jones after Saturday's ceremony.
"I want other service dogs to be able to have the opportunity to be honored, too," she said.
For information on Illini Service Dogs: http://illiniservicedogs.blogspot.com/
Here's the Reddit thread on the picture.