Volunteers from 14 states stop building a home June 11 for disabled veteran Christy Gardner to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Oxford. Tunnel to Towers and A Soldier’s Journey Home teamed up to provide a mortgage-free smart home. Volunteers started building June 4 and will hand the keys over to Gardner on Saturday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

OXFORD —  Christy Gardner, founder and director for Mission Working Dogs in Oxford, has spent much of the last year fundraising to construct a training facility and office – despite the pandemic and spending months training for the U.S. Paralympics in Chula Vista, Cal. Gardner also continued the work she has done for the last nine years, training service dogs to assist Mainers with varying needs.

In the midst of all her demanding work, early this year Gardner also got the surprise of her life when she received a call from the New York-based Tunnel to Towers Foundation informing her they were going to build her a house, for free.

“They said they wanted to present me with a mortgage-free, wheel chair accessible smart home,” Gardner said last week from her Lewiston home, amid happy dogs and packed and empty boxes. “They just called and offered it.

“Literally, I thought they were a scammer and was going to hang up. I was like, really, who calls somebody and offers them a house?”

The call was legit and once she got past the shock she still went to their website for confirmation. Because of the pandemic, early communications with Tunnel to Towers were all virtual. Then last spring they flew her to their headquarters on Staten Island where they worked with her to select features and design for her house, an effort that continued even after the build began.

Christy Gardner, third from left, is not allowed inside the house being built for her in Oxford until the keys are turned over Saturday. “From this point on, it will be a surprise,” said Sharon Holland of A Soldier’s Journey Home, one of two organizations making the build possible. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Tunnel to Towers purchased the land and is funding the house. Gardner paid to have the  site excavated and utility poles installed. A second organization, A Soldier’s Journey Home, is providing the manpower to build the house in just two weeks.

“They [Journey Home] build one house a year,” Gardner said. “They are active and retired first responders. So, some of the firefighters during 9/11 who had to retire because of lung conditions are now tradespeople. Volunteers come from across the country to take part but many local contractors who contribute to the project end up volunteering or donating toward it as well.”

“It feels pretty crazy,” Gardner said. “Like the military, nothing is real until it happens. But people are handing me stuff every day. This morning the Nassau County Fire Firefighters’ Association gave me a laptop. I will get a Macbook Pro that will operate the entire smart home along with apps on my phone.

“Last night we had a fundraiser for Working Dogs at Lost Valley,” she said. “The building group raffled off a beautiful wooden flag that one of the guys had made, carved. They all bought raffle tickets themselves to donate to the foundation.”

Volunteers build a home for veteran Christy Gardner on June 11 in Oxford. Gardner has seen the outside but will not be allowed inside to see the details until Saturday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“It was $880 that they handed to Christy,” said Thereasa Brilliant, a Mission Working Dogs board member since January. “So one of them came up with a $20 and said ‘let’s make it an even $900.’ And another ran up with a hundred to make it an even thousand. For the training center.”

“One of the local volunteers that bought raffle tickets … told us she bought a dog washing station,” Gardner said. “It was one we had on our ‘wish list.’ That’s a $2,000, professional stainless dog washing station.”

Her new house is just down the road from where Mission Working Dogs’ headquarters will eventually be built.

The training facility will have two training rooms, one for small dogs and one for larger dogs. It will include the main office and a bunk room for volunteers, a day kennel and a board room. The building will be wheelchair accessible so it can become an internationally accredited facility, and eight wheelchair-accessible cabins for clients to come stay while they learn to work with their trained service dog.

Christy Gardner with her two service dogs, retired Moxie, 13, far left, and active Doug, 21 months, far right, and two dogs in training, a black Lab named Independence, 12 weeks old, and Libby, a 10-month-old golden retriever. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

Gardner founded Mission Working Dogs last July. It has 24 dogs in training (with a “Berniedoodle” donated from Ohio set to join the crew in July), an eight-member board of directors and 18 volunteers. Its first graduating class was four dogs who went on to serve the people they had been paired with, and one that did not quite make the cut but is going through the program again.

“I hadn’t planned to start a foundation,” Gardner said. “I’d been training on my own for the last nine years. But there is such a demand in Maine. During the pandemic, ours was the only group that was able to continue training classes. And we are the only one in Maine that is not for veterans only. We do mobility assistance as well, not just post-traumatic stress disorder. Our dogs will assist people with conditions like cerebral palsy, who are paraplegic or quadriplegic. The dogs will open and close doors, operate lights, pick up dropped objects.”

Last summer, she began training Doug, a golden retriever donated from an Arizona rescue while she was preparing for the Paralympics in Chula Vista. Doug was meant to be trained for another veteran, but as it turned out he formed such a bond with Gardner that the other veteran decided she should keep him and he would get another service dog. As soon as Garland returned to Maine from California she took in Gidget, a yellow Labrador she is training for Doug’s original job.

Service dog Doug multi-tasks, paying close attention to Christy Gardner while providing comfort to puppy in training, Independence. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

Doug, now 21 months old, has become Gardner’s main service animal, allowing her older golden Moxie to retire and serve as house elder. In addition to Moxie and Doug, she has five dogs in service training residing with her.

“The service dog has to be right for the individual,” Gardner said. “According to personality, and what they like to do. If you’re an avid runner you need a dog that can do that kind of thing, not a basset hound.

“It’s a rolling program. We find puppy-raisers who are kind of appropriate for that dog. They can’t just love the dog, they have to commit to coming to class together and between classes take the dog out in public to socialize it.”

On Saturday Tunnel to Towers and A Soldier’s Journey Home will welcome  present her with the keys to her smart home during a dedication ceremony.

“There is a list of at least 50 local companies and individuals who have supported the home build for Christy in some way,” Sharon Holland of A Soldier’s Journey Home said. “Our yearly build is how many of our volunteers spend their two-week summer vacation. We average about 100 workers on site daily. It’s a marathon that starts at 7 a.m. and continues until whenever, until the house is done within 12 days.”

“A Soldier’s Journey Home is truly honored to be a part of building this home for Christy,” said retired FDNY Lt. Patrick “Paddy” Neville, president of A Soldier’s Journey Home. “It is the very least we can do to give back for the sacrifices she has made on our behalf and on behalf of our nation.”

Six current and retired firefighters from Framingham and Ashland, Massachusetts, spent their own vacation time to help build a new home for Army veteran Christy Gardner. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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