Service dog to accompany Bethel Park freshman to school

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When Bethel Park High School students return to school this month, they will have a little Faith among them.

Faith is a yellow Labrador who will be in the building each day, accompanying freshman Melissa Szabo as she attends class.

Melissa, 14, runs the risk of epileptic seizures, and her service dog will be on hand to seek help, if necessary.

“She’s trained to protect her,” Melissa’s teacher, Amber Speranza, said about Faith. “If [Melissa] has a seizure, [the dog] is trained to find the first person she sees and indicate that Melissa needs help.”

Faith has joined Melissa during the extended school year program at Bethel Park, as the dog gets used to being at school.

“We’re happy. Things have gone well this summer,” said high school principal Zeb Jansante. Although he has been an educator for 30 years, “this is the first time I’ve been involved with a service animal,” he said.

The same goes for other staff members, who received training through the organization that paired Melissa and Faith: the Epilepsy Foundation Western/Central Pennsylvania. Its Oscar Project provides guidance and financial support to children and adults who have epilepsy and want to obtain specially trained dogs for assistance.

“It gives her a level of security and safety,” said Melissa’s mother, Karen Szabo, who added that the dog has been well received at home since its June arrival. “She just fits into the family, like she has been there all along.”

The school district sent letters to parents with information about Faith’s presence at the high school, and another correspondence will go out before school begins. The goal is to ascertain if students have any issues, such as allergies, with regard to the dog.

“We believe we can make accommodations,” Mr. Jansante said. “If a student has a concern, we can do different things to make it all work.”

He doesn’t foresee major problems.

“We have very accepting students,” he said. “They’re terrific with working with students who have special needs.”

Students will be advised to refrain from their natural inclination to pet the dog while Faith is on duty with Melissa.

“Any time the dog is wearing a vest, that dog’s attention needs to be focused on its master,” explained Vicki Flotta, district spokeswoman.

Melissa said when Faith accompanied her to Kennywood Park recently, some enthusiastic patrons wanted to pet the dog.

“No, thank you,” was Melissa’s gracious response to them, as it probably will be to her fellow students until they get acclimated to having Faith.

Harry Funk, freelance writer: 

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