A Special Friend for a Special Child: Elīna and Corrie

Elīna, the fifth participant of the “Friend for a Special Child” program, is a cheerful seventeen-year-old girl from Liepupe. She is a very keen learner and loves spending time with her classmates. She is sincerely passionate about music, she learns to play the piano and to sing, and her greatest dream is to participate in Latvia’s centenary Song Festival. When she grows up, she would like to master the translator’s profession because she is good with languages. However, the achievement of these aspirations, so natural and clear to any other person, has been hard work for Elīna and her parents. When Elīna was born, doctors discovered tissue damage in her lower back; however the diagnosis of spina bifida (spinal hernia) was made a little too late. Performing surgery within the first 48 hours is vital in such cases. But Elīna was born in a hospital in Limbaži, from which she was transported to Valmiera, and only then to Riga.

Struggling tirelessly every day

Spina bifida is a disease that can lead to many other health problems. Elīna has dysfunction in her pelvic organs, no sensitivity in her feet, and has recently had bouts of epilepsy. In the past two years though, epilepsy has not recurred, and the family hopes that the disease is gone forever. At her 17 years of age, the girl has already undergone multiple surgeries. Elīna’s mom Sanita says that her daughter is very lucky to have knee-length orthoses (that help keep the girl’s legs at the right angle), thus being able to move on her own and not only in a wheelchair, at least for short distances. In order to walk, Elīna must always keep her body in shape, do gymnastics, physical therapy, and regularly attend other rehabilitation treatments.

Sanita is officially her daughter’s assistant and takes care of Elīna throughout the day: accompanies her to school, helps to get from one class to another, and takes the girl to physical therapy and massage several times a week.

 “It is great that a few years ago the government realized that parents can be assistants for their own children,” Elīna’s mom says, adding that the state compensation for the assistant’s service is of great support to the family. 

For Elīna, being in her teenage years, the opportunity to be independent becomes increasingly important, but it is not an easy task at the moment. Therefore, both Elīna and her family have high hopes for their new, as they put it, family member named Corrie.

Elīna’s loyal companion

Corrie is a joyful golden retriever puppy who lives together with Elīna and her parents, training to become a professional guide dog for Elīna one day. Corrie has come into the girl’s family this autumn with the financial support of the BeOpen Charitable Foundation as part of the Special Friend for a Special Child program. The project mission is to provide children with special needs (currently, five kids in different parts of Latvia) with a trained four-legged companion – a guide dog. Since the diagnosis and health condition of each child is different, the project involves dog experts who help select and train dogs fit for this task, focusing on puppies who demonstrate qualities that are most suitable for the needs of a particular child. Guide dogs for special children join their families as puppies, so the adjustment to each other happens gradually and allows to establish a particularly deep psychological bond between the child and his/her future assistant.

In accordance with the dog nursery terms, the dog was to be given a name that starts with the letter K or C. A witty and energetic name “Corrie” (short from “Coriander”) was given by Elīna herself. First days are especially full of challenging emotions – the puppy is so infinitely sweet and cute that you just want to cherish and pamper it, but in the future Corrie will have to perform assistant’s duties, therefore, obedience is important as well as regular trainings both with cynologist Inga Zemīte and individually. It is essential that Elīna becomes the authority for Corrie, and she approaches her job with great responsibility. Inga comments that Corrie does 100 per cent of the homework that is given. With the support of the BeOpen Charitable Foundation and thanks to the initiative of the cynologist, weekly training sessions are held in Elīna’s home in Liepupe, in her usual environment where the girl lives and moves every day.

In order to become Elīna’s dog, Corrie has passed a series of inspections and tests. From among his other talented siblings, he was selected as the most suitable for Elīna’s health condition. Since the very first months of Corrie’s life, it was clear that the puppy is sociable and likes to be with people. In spite of abundant energy so typical for puppies at this age, Corrie is a calm and patient dog, not afraid of noisy environments. Both Elīna’s family and the dog trainer Inga hope that, after the training, Corrie will accompany Elīna and help her in all daily activities. Currently, his main task is to bring positive emotions and to be a loyal friend. In the future, the trained dog will be able to participate in physical therapy, help Elīna move around her school and other public places, fetch items for her, turn on the lights, and perform other tasks to ease the girl’s everyday life.

Sharing the experience and enjoying every single achievement

Elīna’s weekdays are not easy – not only she attends school and faces the usual teenage difficulties, but her life is also filled with regular visits to the doctor and various rehabilitation sessions. Together with the whole family Elīna sings in the local choir “Pernigele” and attends music school. She finished the flute class and is currently in her third year of learning piano. Elīna is lucky: despite the serious health issues and numerous challenges, her parents provided her with the opportunity to study in a regular school. Two secondary schools, in fact, – in Salacgrīva and Liepupe. Elīna and her mom take the longer distance to Salacgrīva three times a week, and the rest of the time she attends lessons in Liepupe secondary school, including a few home-schooled subjects taught to Elīna individually in the school premises. Elīna studies according to the general education programme, but at a pace that matches the state of her health. As noted by her mother Sanita, this learning model was developed specifically for Elīna. She admits it was a great challenge just getting to talk about supporting education within the school curriculum – in reality, schools are often reluctant to accept children with special needs. Elīna’s family is very grateful to the school’s management and the town administration for accommodating their needs, and believes they are setting a positive example to other public schools.

Elīna’s mom Sanita is now happy to share her experience with other families raising children who have been diagnosed with spina bifida. 

“Nowadays, we have a community, on the internet. Parents are eager to share information about the condition, they want to talk about their lives. It helps them learn about the available options for state support, and they stick together by helping each other. Unfortunately, the state system lacks guidance for the parents of babies born with a serious diagnosis – what to do, where to go, and what specialists to visit. I remember how my entire world seemed to collapse when Elīna was born. Most doctors said that she would never walk, that she would be mentally handicapped. Fortunately, there were also those who encouraged us,” she said.

Importantly, going to school is an opportunity for Elīna to socialise with children of her age. Sanita hopes that Corrie might take over her duties as Elīna’s assistant over time. He will be able to help Elīna get from one classroom to another, for example. With Corrie as an assistant by her side, Elīna would become more independent and feel more comfortable around her peers – at ease, just like everyone else.

“We are very grateful to so many people who have helped Elīna grow and develop, who supported us when Elīna needed surgeries and expensive orthoses. Such children should be around other people, they need to learn together with ordinary children – only this way our society can learn to understand and accept,” Elīna’s mom added.

“We believe Elīna and her family can accomplish it all. We can already see – with great pleasure, I might add – what big, positive changes are happening in the everyday life of each participant of a Special Friend for a Special Child program. For Katrīna and Everts in Riga, Roberts in Valmiera and Kirill in Liepāja, the assistant dogs-to-be are already encouraging each of them to be more active in their lives, to take more active part in all manner of things,” notes BeOpen Charitable Foundation member of the board Ingrīda Šmite. “At the same time, we are very glad to have had so many compassionate people join our foundation’s initiative. Together, we can help these special children and their strong families,” Ingrīda Šmite adds.

On the photos:

• Elīna with her mother Sanita and father Normunds

• Elīna with canine specialist Inga Zemīte

• Elīna and Corrie

Photos by Marenda Zapoļska