Nonprofit organization, dog trainers connect to bring smiles to veterans

Jan. 24—JACKSONVILLE — A nonprofit organization in Jacksonville connected with a Piedmont-based dog training facility to bring some puppy love to folks at the American Legion here Monday.

Smiles were in no short supply as veterans and their families got cuddles and dog-kisses from eight different K-9 friends Monday afternoon, thanks to Great Things in Jacksonville (GTIJ) and MK9 Solutions.

MK9 Solutions is the largest company in the United States that trains dogs destined to become specialized law-enforcement detection K9s. The group coupled with GTIJ in efforts to build community relations, according to MK9 Solutions local director of operations Tim Baird.

"We're just outreaching to the community so that people understand what we're doing and to get more support from the community," Baird said.

The nonprofit organization is also in the process of improving the facility at the 45-year-old Richard L. Waters American Legion Post 57.

The enhancements to the facility that sits atop a small hill at 1511 Pelham Road South will encourage more interaction between the veterans who frequent the building, community members who may need a venue and teachers who can bring students to the facility to study history.

"It has been amazing how many different contractors have said they'd help free," said Gail DaParma, the volunteer who oversees community projects for GTIJ.

DaParma started the organization in the late summer of 2021, and has overseen GTIJ as it has arranged games of Pokemon for young people, refurbished the historical plaques in Jacksonville and added QR codes with historical information to places where other murals are located around the city.

This newest project hopes to increase community pride, unity and camaraderie by bringing together the post, the history department at Jacksonville State University, volunteers and the business community.

"We are trying to build synergy between groups," DaParma said. All groups are welcome to help us, and we are far more dynamic if we work together."

Monday, the facility was packed with people young and old as MK9 brought in the dogs one by one so as to not overwhelm them.

Baird said that the dogs also benefit from interaction with the community. The more places environmentally that the company can take the dogs, the better the dogs are. He said it makes for a better dog if the dog is exposed to the community as puppies or younger dogs rather than waiting until the dogs are purchased as detection dogs.

Baird said he feels doing events such as Monday's was important because "in my opinion, our veterans have been put to the side." He said there is so much more that the community could be doing for the veterans and that "there's nothing better than a dog."

"A lot of our dogs that don't make it in our program we donate to organizations that train dogs for PTSD. And that's better than any medication there is," Baird said.

"The more things that are like this that we can do with our vets is amazing," Baird continued.

Staff Writer Ashley Morrison: 256-236-1551. On Twitter: @AshMorrison1105.