When we dreamed up Beach & Bay Half Marathon almost 10 years ago, our idea was to create the ultimate San Diego running event, which included a flat course with beautiful views; a fun and lively Finish Festival to turn the race into an entertaining morning event; and, of course, giving back to the community. We’ve donated over $50,000 to San Diego-based charities, and we’ve only just begun. This year, we’re excited to announce our 2023 Featured Charity Partner, Freedom Dogs, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit providing highly trained service dogs to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

            For us, the choice of Freedom Dogs was easy. Many on our team have been directly involved with the training of service dogs, so we’ve seen first-hand how these dogs can—and do—change a person’s life. What’s more, Beach & Bay being a quintessentially San Diego race, we wanted to focus on a quintessentially San Diego-based charity, and Freedom Dogs is that. Founded by a former UCSD critical care nurse, Freedom Dogs services active and retired military heroes living in San Diego. The training center is in Oceanside. And the chairman of the board is Lori Walton, wife of basketball legend Bill Walton, who also serves on the board. The couple is known for their extensive, and carefully chosen philanthropic efforts. “If Bill and Lori are behind it, I know it’s a worthy cause,” says longtime Freedom Dogs donor TK. “It’s quite simple. San Diego is a better place because Bill and Lori are in it.”

     Formerly known as, “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” PTSD is a psychiatric disorder common in people who have experienced (including witnessing) a traumatic event. Those with PTSD suffer debilitatingly intense thoughts and feelings related back to those experiences. They may relive an event through flashbacks or nightmares. They often feel intense fear, sadness, and anger. And they tend to feel detached or estranged from others. People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event since sounds and situations as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch can set them off into another trauma. Left untreated, PTSD can last for months, years, or a lifetime. Enter: Freedom Dogs.

     Freedom Dogs was founded by former critical care nurse Beth Russell after she witnessed first-hand the effects of PTSD suffered by U.S. military heroes, and realized that, along with the dogs, she could help. For veterans suffering from this terrifying and debilitating psychological disorder—which includes a staggering 83% of military who have served post 9/11—a loud noise or a sudden movement can be traumatizing, sending them into a trigger response and making even something as simple as grocery shopping, or even leaving the house, seem impossible. The dogs, mostly Labrador retrievers, chosen for their mellow temperaments and loving nature, undergo two years of training wherein, among other things, they learn to recognize these trigger responses and how to guide their person back into the present moment.

            With a simple touch of his nose, a dog can bring his or her hero out of a traumatizing memory and back to the present. At the 2022 annual Freedom Dogs Golf Tournament {LINK}, hosted by chairs Lori and Bill Walton at Fairbanks Ranch every March, U.S. Marine veteran William Pieczarka explained that with that touch, his dog brings him out of a nightmare, and back into reality. “You’re not over there,” the dog says to him when he recognizes that Pieczarka is triggered. “You’re here. Be with me. Be in this moment.”

Freedom Dogs trains both the dogs and the military heroes, and then pairs them and trains them together. What’s more, the signature blend of loyalty, comfort, and love that the dogs offer (no training required!), is a proven remedy, recognized by the American Psychological Association to speed the recovery of those suffering from PTSD. “There is a look of hope, and even a smile, on their faces as they work with these dogs,” says Russell, who is also the lead trainer at Freedom Dogs. “They are willing to give life a chance again.”

            What makes Freedom Dogs different from many other veteran assistance programs is that the length of the organization’s commitment. “Many of the programs these vets have been in are for a set amount of time,” says Russell. “When the time is up, they are left to fend for themselves.” Freedom Dogs, by contrast, understands the long-term effects of PTSD, and thus, the long-term needs of these heroes. “They’ve never been in a program that invests in them the way Freedom Dogs does,” Russell says, recounting a recent interaction with a vet. “He asked me if he was almost out of time in our program. He was worried about giving up his dog. I reassured him, ‘Freedom Dogs are forever.’”

            With an ever-expanding demand for these dogs and a lifelong commitment, there is only one thing needed: more trained dogs. Freedom Dogs does not receive government assistant, so the organization is asking for support to meet the growing demand. The formula is simple: The more money, the more training, the more dogs available to heroes in need. And the more lives will be changed.

            Count us in!  We love putting on a great race. But the fact that we can contribute in some small way to the lives of others in need, especially those who have given so much to our country and our individual freedom, this is what makes our work truly satisfying.

            To learn more about Freedom Dogs and to meet some of these charming, life-altering canines, visit the Freedom Dogs booth at Beach & Bay’s Finish Festival.

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