Mary Cortani Honored as Woman of the Year – Morgan Hill Times

Mary Cortani started Operation Freedom Paws in 2010 with funding from friends and family and a “passion” for training service dogs and helping fellow military veterans who struggle with life issues. health in their daily civilian life.

Since then, the San Martin-based nonprofit has paired 487 clients with service dogs, training them together in an intensive program and providing a “holistic” approach to therapy in the ownership of the organization on Llagas Avenue, according to Cortani. Operation Freedom Paws’ motto is “Four Legs, Two Feet, One Team”.

On June 24, Cortani, the founder and executive director of OFP, was honored as the 2022 District 17 Woman of the Year for State Senator John Laird’s district. The annual award is “to honor the women of this state who do incredible work that isn’t always recognized at the state level,” said Laird District Representative Justin Tran.

For Cortani, it’s all about customers, whom she considers family.

“We promised you from day one that we would always be here, that we would always support you and that we would give you everything we could to help you – and if we didn’t have the answer, we would try to find the answer. ,” Cortani told a roomful of patrons and their dogs who attended the June 24 ceremony. “Being a part of your family and your life for 13 years now means something to me and it means something to this organization that you came back and are still a part of it.”

One of those present was Mariela Meylan with her family and her service dog, Teddy. Meylan, an Army veteran who was wounded in action in 2004, is the second client ever served by OFP, and Teddy is the second dog she has acquired and trained through the program since joining. OFP in 2010.

Not all OFP clients are veterans. Some are first responders and children. Most of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTS) “and/or symptoms of traumatic brain injury (TBI), or other physical, neurological, psychological or mobility needs” , according to the OFP website.

Clients are paired with their own service dogs, and pairs stay together as they train side-by-side for the specific needs of the client.

Some of these customers say without an ounce of exaggeration that Cortani, her crew and OFP saved their lives. Charles Fryman, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam, began taking his dog, Belle, to OFP in 2016 for civilian training.

One day, Belle started furiously licking Fryman’s hands and neck, he said at the June 24 ceremony. He told Cortani about Belle’s behavior and she suggested Fryman go to a doctor for checkups.

Fryman was told he was diabetic, and Belle licked his hands when his blood sugar was dangerously high or low. After that, OFP put Fryman and Belle on a training program in which the dog’s job was to recognize Fryman’s symptoms and alert him accordingly.

Since then, and after a few emergency incidents, Fryman and Belle have stabilized his diabetes, he said.

Most clients are paired with dogs provided by OFP, although staff and trainers consider working with a client’s existing pet if they are able to complete the training, Cortani explained. The vast majority of OFP dogs are rescued.

Ramon Reyes, an 18-year-old army veteran, had been on OFP’s waiting list for about a year when they called him in 2017. A spot had opened up and OFP offered to match him with her new service dog, Huey, Reyes said in June. 24.

Huey changed the lives of Reyes and his family, he said.

“Honestly, I don’t think I would be here without Mary’s help, without Huey,” Reyes said, with Huey at his side. “That’s how my life was going. If Mary could be named Woman of the Year every year that would be great… She is Woman of the Year forever in my life. I love you Marie.

Cortani’s combined passion for helping veterans and training service dogs comes from her experience as a dog trainer in the military, where she served nine years in the active and 16 years in the reserve.

OFP’s services go beyond providing clients with assistance dogs and related training. The organization offers group and individual therapy sessions; quiet and spacious areas on the grounds, indoors and outdoors, for guests to relax; and 24/7 support available for customers in crisis, Cortani explained during a June 24 tour of the property. OFP also works with other therapy providers to ensure the full spectrum of client needs are met.

The OFP program is completely free and customers only need to commit to the time required to complete their service dog training.

“If a customer is in crisis and wants to enter their safe space, they can,” Cortani said. “We try to give them tools to be able to meet their challenges.”

Cortani and OFP have gained national recognition over the years, including as “CNN Hero” in 2012. Before accepting a plaque commemorating the District 17 honor, she was quick to pay tribute to her staff, board and supporters.

“To my staff and members of the Board of Directors, you help me fulfill this mission on a daily basis. I couldn’t do this without my staff and the incredible community support I have,” Cortani said.

State Senate District 17 includes southern Santa Clara County, part of Monterey County, and all of Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties.

Tran added that Laird “personally” appreciates the work the OFP does for veterans.

“He recognizes the importance of making sure that we provide (veterans) with services when they return. At the federal level, these services are sometimes not available to our veterans. Thank you, again, for highlighting the needs of veterans,” Tran said.

OFP client Steve Suchow, with his service dog, Remmy, at the San Martin nonprofit on June 24. Photo: Michael Moore
OFP client Charles Fryman with Belle at the San Martin nonprofit on June 24. Photo: Michael Moore

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