Gilroy dog trainer Mary Cortani was surrounded by good company – both human and canine – when she learned of some marvelous news Thursday morning while having breakfast at Station 55 restaurant in downtown Gilroy.
The Army veteran of 14 years and former Army Master Instructor of Canine Education made the top 10 cut for CNN’s “Hero of the Year.”
Since its inception in 2007, “CNN Heroes” has received more than 45,000 submissions from more than 100 countries and profiled more than 180 heroes. Approximately 24 people were profiled by CNN this year. That group was then whittled down to 10 people.
Cortani was one of them.
The recognition comes with a $50,000 award – and a chance at an additional $250,000 grant – that will go toward Cortani’s exponentially booming organization, Operation Freedoms Paws. Founded by Cortani in 2010, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit empowers wounded veterans and others with mental/or physical impairments to not only train their own service dogs, but ultimately function with the help of their service dogs at home and in society.
Being in the company of “amazing people who are trying to make a difference in the world” is already an honor, Cortani said. “To be selected for the top 10 is like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this real?’”
Thursday morning, Cortani’s entourage – participant-turned-volunteer Janet Wenholz, dog trainer Trudi Souza and board member Janet King – sat excitedly around the table, their gazes darting back and forth between a wall-mounted big screen TV tuned to CNN, and an iPad clutched by King, who anxiously refreshed the CNN homepage every 5 seconds.
Two of the service dogs in the Operation Freedoms Paws program, a glossy black Labrador named RJ and a cute pit bull mix named Clover, sat contentedly beneath the table.
It was a phone call from another supporter, however (who had faster Internet, apparently), that ultimately broke the stellar news to Cortani.
“I made the top 10,” said Cortani, almost quietly, as she looked up and smiled at her friends.
Even their waitress was in on the excitement, stopping by with a pot of coffee in hand to see if there were any new updates.
“There’s about 40 people whose lives stopped at 9 a.m., wherever they were, to check their computers,” laughed Souza, of Cortani’s supporters spread throughout South County and beyond.
That includes Jennifer Poeschl, a U.S. Army veteran of seven years who credits Cortani with “giving me back my life.”
Poeschl, 40 – who still struggles with depression, anxiety, panic disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War – was referred to Cortani by her psychiatrist, who felt Poeschl would benefit from a service dog.
Before getting paired up with Shadow – a 2-year-old half Labrador, half Queensland heeler – Poeschl said she was housebound for several years.
“At any given week, I wouldn’t step out the front door, I wouldn’t answer the phone,” she recalled. “The world got to be too much for me after everything and I couldn’t face it anymore.”
Poeschl’s life turned 180 degrees since crossing paths with Cortani in February. Working alongside Shadow and having him as a constant companion “is such a wonderful gift,” said Poeschl. “He is always right there with me, he watches out for me, he’s just there, and he loves me no matter what. I can’t describe how much he has done for me.”
Poeschl travels more than 100 miles every Saturday from her home in Ripon, located outside of Modesto, to work with Cortani. It’s well worth the trek, she says.
“Mary is what everyone should try to be. She is the best person I know,” says Poeschl. “And she has given everything she has to this program. She is a wonderful person.”
Cortani – a decidedly humble type with a quiet demeanor and calming presence – said she is “overwhelmed” by Thursday’s news.
“My phone is exploding,” she grinned, cell phone lighting up with calls and text messages.
After being featured in June as a weekly “CNN Hero,” Cortani is now in the running for “CNN Hero of the Year.”
Each top 10 CNN Hero will receive $50,000, with the CNN “Hero of the Year” receiving an additional $250,000. grant. The winner is determined by voters, with online voting officially opening up this morning. Cortani’s image and story now appears with the other nine candidates in the running for the “Hero of the Year” on CNN’s website.
The annual tribute show will be hosted by news anchor Anderson Cooper Dec. 2 on CNN.
If Cortani wins, the money will go toward finding a permanent home for OFP. The program currently operates out of the large warehouse at 8425 Monterey St. (also occupied by the Gilroy Compassion Center), where Cortani spearheads a 32-week training regimen for human-dog teams.
OFP dog trainer Trudi Souza says the fringe benefits of being nationally spotlighted by CNN extend far beyond monetary value.
Besides the recognition, “the exposure and communication that we’re going to get from this and the veterans who are going to know that Mary is out there ... that’s huge. We’ve all been trying in our own networks to get the word out, and CNN is just going to multiply that international visibility for us.”
There are currently 84 OFP participants, which consists mostly of veterans as well as a few teens and individuals struggling with seizures or hearing impairments.
“I’ve got another eight applications on my desk right now,” Cortani noted.
Wenholz says Cortani “basically turned her whole life over to the veterans and to this program.”
She refers to Cortani as “an alchemist.”
“I don’t ‘know how she finds the perfect dog for these people, but it’s amazing to watch them bond within an hour,” she said.
OFP begins by hand-picking dogs from local shelters, then matching each canine to a compatible veteran. Many participants who go through the program struggle with issues such as post traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
Canines and their handlers completing the program together is what makes Operation Freedoms Paws so unique and dynamic, says Wenholz.
“They go through everything at the same time,” she said. “When Cortani uses shelter and rescue dogs, they heal each other.”
Being nominated as a CNN Hero wasn’t Cortani’s first time in the limelight. She’s been featured in the Dispatch, recently received a major grant from the local philanthropic organization, the Gilroy Foundation, and was honored with the American Red Cross Real Heroes Award in 2011.
Cortani was originally nominated as a CNN Hero in April by Alice Herbert, a longtime client of Cortani’s who watched OFP evolved over the years. Herbert’s compelling letter stood out among thousands sent from around the globe to CNN’s review committee, which followed up with a background check “so thorough, I thought I was getting my security clearance for the service again,” Cortani joked.
After informing Cortani that she had been selected as a CNN hero, a reporter and videographer visited Gilroy the weekend of May 19. OFP was filmed in action at local locations including Sarah’s Vineyard on Hecker Pass Highway and Station 55 Bar and Grill downtown.
If you would like to contribute to OFP, or sponsor a service dog, OFP donations can be mailed to Operation Freedoms Paws, 777 First St., PMB 515, Gilroy, CA 95020. Donations can also be made online at www.operationfreedomspaws.org.