‘Operation At Ease’ working through pandemic, pairing shelter dogs with veterans and first responders

Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — There are plenty of nonprofits out there who solely work to help our veterans and first responders. One of them happens to be “Operation At Ease” in Schenectady.

Normally, they’d have several in-person events by now, but due to the pandemic, that’s not the case. In July, they made the decision to pull all of their in-person fundraisers and to go virtual.

The nonprofit provides free service and guide dog training for veterans and first responders with the use of dogs from local shelters. Operation At Ease doesn’t receive any sort of state, federal funding, or grants. All of the money to keep it running is from donations and events.

Founder and trainer, Joni Bonilla says they use the dogs as a bridge, not a barrier. It helps with starting conversations that sometimes the clients might not have, behavior interruption, and much more.

Currently, they’re in the midst of their “Stop the Stigma” motorcycle ride, which is traditionally in person, but virtual this year, and ends October 22.

Bonilla says having to cut back has made it extremely difficult, but she’s not worried moving forward.

“I held the first class in my front yard and if I need to hold classes in my front yard again, then I’ll do it again,” Bonilla said. “Stopping is not an option at this point. We are here to help the community. We are here to help the people in need. We are here to expand and we will figure it out.”

Since their launch five years ago, Bonilla says they’ve helped out over 50 dogs from the shelters for veterans.

Coming up is their biggest fundraiser, which will be held in November. Bonilla says it’s one that earns enough to help pay their rent for the entire year. She said any dollar helps and can certainly go a long way for both the veterans and the service dogs.

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