Raising funds to help local teen overcome epilepsy
By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter
Heather Yates-Smith and B.J. Melick are practically strangers, having met by chance through a mutual friend earlier this summer.
But Melick has a story that struck a powerful chord with Smith. Melick’s 16-year-old son Zarek — a junior at Colchester High School who moved to town from Maine two years ago — suffers debilitating epileptic seizures. To keep him safe and to allow him some of the teenage independence the disease has robbed him of, Zarek has been accepted to receive a service dog from a non-profit dog training center in Nebraska called Domesti-PUPS. The Melicks have been trying to raise money to travel there, have Zarek train with a dog, and bring it back to Colchester.
That’s where Smith has come in.
“She has just taken over,” Melick said. “It has been overwhelming, but in the best possible sense of overwhelming.”
Smith is the mother of a child with a hearing disability who also went to Colchester High School. She understands how a child with a disability struggles to lead a normal adolescent life. She noticed the Melick’s fundraising efforts had been stagnant. And she knew she had the ability to help.
A member of a national motorcycle club called the Tazmanian Devils, Smith has organized a Sept. 19 “Ride For Zarek” around Vermont, departing from and returning to The Backstage Pub in Essex’s Post Office Square. A raffle, silent auction and dinner are all part of the event. And you don’t have to have a motorcycle to participate — you can ride along in your car. The hope is to raise $18,000 to pair Zarek with a dog trained to recognize the signs of a seizure and help keep him safe in the event one occurs.
Zarek is 6-foot-3 and his mother trusts only family members to help him through a seizure, which limits his independence — he can’t shower without a family member in the house, go to the movies with friends or be alone for more than a couple hours at a time.
“We don’t trust friends to keep him safe,” Melick said. “The dog will do that.”
Domesti-PUPS trains service dogs specifically to help people with epilepsy. The dogs are able to lay on someone having a seizure to keep them secure, roll them on their side so they don’t choke, fetch a phone, and alert someone to a seizure. Melick recently met with administrators at the Colchester School District about how to manage bringing a dog on a school bus and into classrooms.
“He hasn’t been able to experience all the stuff teenagers should be able to because he can’t be on his own,” said Smith. “I wanted to do whatever I could do to help and give him some of his childhood back before he’s not a teenager anymore … Nothing was done to help my son, and if I can better another kids’ life, I want to.”
The motorcycle ride was timed to coincide with foliage season. Riders are donating $25 per driver, and $5 per passenger. Zarek will participate on a motorcycle and his parents will ride in a car. Smith is recruiting businesses to donate auction items.
“These people are essentially strangers, and strangers don’t typically act like this,” Melick said.
More information on how to help is available at www.zareksservicedog.com.