CHAMPAIGN – As Bridget Evans heads from class to class at the University of Illinois, her constant companion is a fuzzy 11-year-old black Labrador retriever named Coal.
Evans, 21, a senior from Orland Park, was born with spina bifida. She relies on Coal to pull her wheelchair across campus, pick up things like remote controls or cell phones, open doors for her and turn lights on and off.
"He carries my books, he goes to classes with me and he helps me when I fall," said Evans. "I don't know what I'd do without him."
Coal wears a red vest marked with the words, "Service Dog," and the Lab often wags his tail as he helps Evans experience life at the UI.
"Coal loves going places with me, and he loves having a job to do," Evans said. "He feels fulfilled."
Starting in January, Evans will enlist the help of as many as 14 fellow UI students, all sophomores and juniors, to train service dogs to help other people with disabilities.
The UI Applied Health Sciences Student Council is teaming up with a nonprofit organization, MidAmerica Service Dogs' Foundation, and the UI College of Veterinary Medicine to train two 7-month-old puppies to become service dogs. Sixty students turned out for a presentation a week ago introducing them to the program.
The effort is billed as the first program of its kind on a college campus, but Jack Giambrone, director of training at MidAmerica, said a women's prison had a similar program for about eight years.
"I was looking for an untapped population that would be interested in training service dogs," Evans said. "When my friends said they would be interested, we began to pursue bringing a training program to the UI."
While the first two puppies are being provided by breeders, Giambrone said, long-term plans call for using dogs from rescue shelters.
Two of the students will bring the puppies into their apartments or dorms (service dogs in training have all the rights to be in public places and housing that trained service dogs have) and will be responsible for feeding and caring for them.
The remaining students will each spend at least two hours a week working with the dogs under Evans' leadership to teach the puppies to follow commands; including heel, sit, stay and pick things up.
The dogs will also learn proper etiquette when working with people using wheelchairs.
Students will take the dogs in training on outings to public locations such as restaurants and stores so the dogs will be ready to handle different environments with their future companions.
"Once we went to the movies with eight or nine dogs in training to see 'Marley and Me,'" Giambrone said. "I think even the dogs began to cry."
Carlin Harp, 18, a student from Swansea, said she is excited about the program.
"I love dogs, and service dogs are extra loyal," Harp said. "It think it will be a good experience for me."
Kyle Easter, a senior from Joliet, said he got interested because he has a dog at home.
"People need these dogs, and we are filling a need that is underfilled," Easter said. "This is a great way to get students involved with helping others."
The program's participants will be writing blogs to chronicle their experiences, and the College of Veterinary Medicine will provide medical services for the dogs in training.
But Evans said the toughest part of the job will be at the end of the year, when the volunteers are required to give up a dog so it can assist a person with disabilities. "You have to remind yourself this is going to help somebody who needs him," Evans said.
Giambrone said his organization will provide the trained dogs to disabled people free of charge at the end of the training program.
"A lot of service-dog programs ask for a $20,000 donation for the service dogs," Evans said. "We figure the people who need the dogs already have additional costs like medical bills, so they should not have to pay for a service dog."