When 55-year-old Mark Niewald signed up last May to serve as a volunteer with the American Red Cross, his initial thought was to work as a registrar for blood donations. He had no idea that five months later, he would be asked to help respond to home fires and trained to deploy to local disasters. And he was doubly surprised to find that his first disaster assignment this month had nothing to do with fires – but was one of the most damaging hurricanes to strike his home state of North Carolina in years. While he felt equipped and well trained, Mark says he was stunned to see the extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew.
“I didn’t expect it to come this far inland,” Mark shares in disbelief as he describes how flood waters and power outages have impacted thousands.
Yet, as Mark makes the rounds throughout the Spring Lake shelter as a newly appointed shelter manager tending to dozens of people, he has a small surprise of his own. Tagging along at his side, Mark’s service dog, Ember, follows his every move as together they greet children and families who’ve lost power or had homes flooded out.
“These children are stressed out and don’t know what’s going on,” says Mark. “But I’ve seen their faces brighten up when they are around her.”
Ember got her name from a firefighter who’d raised her, a name that Mark says is absolutely perfect.
“I just thought it looked like embers had flown out of the fireplace, the way her spots are!” chuckles Mark.
A Special Therapy Dalmatian for Anyone In Need
While the 7-year-old Dalmatian was trained to help Mark more quickly recognize warning signs for when his blood sugar levels dip too low, Mark today calls her his “dual therapy” dog, given she’s now also helping comfort those at the Red Cross shelter as he does his volunteer work.
“The Red Cross is here to help,” Mark explains. “Every time Ember walks by, children say, ‘can I see your dog?’ They love her.”
Mark says Ember is unusually sensitive for her type of breed – an empathetic characteristic she developed long ago as a small pup. At just 10 months old, Mark says little Ember suddenly fell off a third floor deck. The fall had been so traumatic that Ember eventually lost one of her back legs when it had to be amputated. Yet, since then, Mark says Ember has developed an odd magnetism toward those who are suffering.
“It’s true! She always seems to comfort people. She’s always just been this way,” shares Mark. “She knows if people are upset or hurting and she gives them extra attention.”
From Red Cross Shelter Residents to Local Officials: Ember Has Rave Reviews
Spring Lake’s town manager, Tad Davis, has been surveying the damage throughout the past week and says support from the Red Cross has made a tremendous impact.
“They’ve got not only a well-organized effort, but also the experience, knowledge and the compassion for the individual families and folks that come in here,” says Tad. “Folks know they are being taken care of by people who really care.”
Well, people…and one special Dalmatian. Davis is one of the first to say that Ember’s support has been “priceless.”
“You look at that dog and she is enjoying life with three legs,” says Tad. “So if a dog with three legs can enjoy life, then people who are suffering, well, it just puts a smile on their face!”