By Kayla Bell
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kayla Bell recently graduated with her fellow 2021 classmates. As an intern in the CHS Creative Services area this year, Kayla wrote this story as the semester came to an end. As you’ll see, it's an emotional tale for several reasons. After all, it was only 18 months ago that Kayla met Norbert.
Their lives would never be the same.
— Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director
My name is Kayla Bell, and I am a senior in the College of Health Sciences. I will be graduating this May with my Bachelor of Science in Human Health Sciences with minors in Health Advocacy and Spanish. While CHS has helped me meet so many amazing people and has been my home away from home for the past three years, the greatest part of my college experience was outside the classroom and the office. It was being part of an organization called 4 Paws for Ability.
I remember being told that my four years of college would be when I found my best friends. I knew that would be true. What I did not know was that my best friend would have four legs and a tail. I am originally from southern Illinois, and when I got to UK, I did not know many people that were already here or that were coming. With it being the first time I was fully away from my parents and my family, I did not know what to expect.
I heard about 4 Paws from a girl that lived down the hall from me my freshman year, but I did not look too much into it until I was a sophomore. 4 Paws for Ability, located in Xenia, Ohio, is a non-profit organization that breeds and trains puppies to become service dogs for children and veterans with disabilities. Across the UK campus, there are actually more than 60 students working with the organization. The more I looked into the program, the more I fell in love with it. Not only do you get to foster an adorable puppy, but you get to know that you are raising that puppy to change someone’s life someday.
I applied to be a primary foster through 4 Paws in October 2019. I was approved and put on the waitlist to get a puppy to train, so I spent a few weeks as a sitter. About halfway through November, I got an email about a litter of German Shepherd/Golden Retriever puppies that would be ready for fosters in early December. I immediately jumped on the opportunity and on Dec. 3, I picked up 8-week-old Norbert. My friends and family fell in love with him. He was such a smart and goofy puppy that could put a smile on anyone’s face. In no time, he was known not only throughout the college, but also across campus. After a two-week stint here, we spent winter break in Illinois with my family. Naturally, he came back to campus with me for the Spring 2020 semester. He was my little sidekick all day, every day. I took him to class, to the store, and anywhere else that would be beneficial for his socializing.
Within three months, we were on our way back to Illinois due to COVID. I had a feeling that we would not get back to campus before August. Norbert rode out quarantine with my family and that is what made us inseparable. I was trying my best to finish out the semester strong, take care of a growing puppy, and keep my sanity in the middle of a global pandemic. Throughout all of the ups and downs that happened last summer, Norbert was my rock throughout everything.
When we got the email that we would be returning to campus for the Fall 2020 semester, I was so excited for the opportunity to get Norbert back out and socialized. All of my classes ended up being online for the semester, so it was not the ideal scenario to get him back out there to interact with people. Last semester was personally full of many ups and downs and struggles that I didn’t necessarily share with anyone. But no matter what I was going through, Norbert was right next to me and always attached to my hip. He had his first evaluation for Advanced Training back in November 2020. He was not quite ready to move on, so I got a little extra time to work with him.
Most puppies in the program head back to Advanced Training around a year old. However, they can stay in foster longer if they have specific things they need to work through. For example, Norbert is uneasy when kids run at him. Since he could end up being paired with a child or with someone who has kids, that is something he really needs to be comfortable with.
We worked really hard for the next six months and got him out and socialized as much as possible. He had a second evaluation in early April, and to say I was so proud of him would be an understatement. He should be ready to move on to Advanced Training in the summer.
At this point, I have had Norbert for 16 months. That is about 6-8 months longer than a lot of fosters get with their puppies. I cannot imagine what my life will be like without him. He has been with me for some huge milestones and will now be finishing out my last few weeks at UK with me as I get ready to graduate. I truly do not know how I would have made it through the past year and a half without him. He depended on me just about as much as I depended on him. He kept me going and never failed to cheer me up when I was having a rough day. With his give-back coming up soon, I am truly thankful that I was able to finish out my last semester of undergrad with him.
I will forever be thankful for my experience with 4 Paws. This organization has a truly incredible mission, and they are changing people’s lives. The University Foster program provided me with the opportunity to put my time and energy into something that was so much bigger than myself. By the time Norbert is projected to go back for Advanced Training to continue on his path to becoming a service dog, we will have spent 18 months together out of his 20 months being alive. Even though those were some of the hardest months of my life, they will always be the best 18 months of my life.
I always get asked how hard it is to give back a puppy after you foster them for such a long time. Well, the truth is, I don’t know. Norbert is my first foster, and I haven’t had to go through that part of the process yet. The closer it gets, the more my heart breaks. He hasn’t just been a temporary foster. He is my best friend. I know it is going to be hard watching him move on and not have him in my life every day. Norbert is a special dog. He has a big personality and the sweetest face that just melts your heart. He is beyond smart and a huge cuddler. As the days I have left with him wind down, the best response I can give anyone is this: I have no doubt that saying goodbye to Norbert will break my heart. But I know I will be okay because he was made for so much more than just being my best friend. He is going to change someone’s life someday, and it will be so much more than he changed mine.
That is what I will hold on to. For that reason, I would do all of it all over again in a heartbeat.
If you are interested in fostering with 4 Paws, they would love to have you! There is a club on campus, so be sure to check out 4 Paws for Ability on BBNvolved! You can use the following link to apply to be a volunteer trainer: https://4pawsforability.org/volunteer-trainer-programs
Photos by Arnett Studios