By Meg Herndon
Pictures of Keith McCoy
You can learn a lot about Tonya Willingham by browsing through her office. Photos of his family line the wall above his desk. A couch sits across the room, begging anyone who sits on it to sink into it and take a nap. Next to it, a shelf is lined with coloring books, pencils, books and games. A 4-year-old golden retriever and lab mix is curled up on his dog bed under a scribbled whiteboard.
This dog is Fitzgerald II, and Tonya will be happy to tell you anything you want to know about him as long as you’re willing to listen.
But Tonya prefers not to talk about herself. She made that very clear when after three phone calls and an email later she finally agreed to be interviewed for this article – on the condition that the story be less about her specifically and more about her work and the nonprofit she co-founded instead.
“It’s Tonya,” said Sergeant Brad Jordan of the Pelham Police Department, who has worked with Tonya for more than 15 years. “She’s never here for the glory, but what she does has an impact.”
By day, Tonya is handler to Fitzgerald II, affectionately known as Fitz, is Shelby County’s one and only resident settlement dog and one of seven certified working settlement dogs in the state from Alabama. To sum up, Fitz has one hell of a job security.
Although she loves what she does now, Tonya didn’t go to college to become a dog handler. She began her career as a police officer, before going to law school and becoming an assistant Shelby County District Attorney in 2006. The job, while rewarding, was also grueling. “I was stressed. If you ask some of the defense attorneys here, they’d probably tell you I wasn’t very nice,” Tonya said, laughing about her past.
It was in 2014 that Tonya first encountered a courthouse dog through her work at a continuing legal education conference. Willow, the state’s first facility dog, was part of a presentation on the use of dogs in the courthouse that stayed with Tonya.
“At the time, I was like, ‘That’s genius!’ “says Tonya. “What dogs do for children and any witness (is) huge. After watching people struggle for so long, I thought, “Man, that would just be a great asset we could bring to our office for the victims we serve here.” and received a Hero Grant, and when Tonya was approached by the DHU, she “jumped on it”.
After completing two weeks of training in Texas with Canine Companions, Tonya returned home with Fitz. His two years of training prior value him between $50 and $60,000, on top of his $1 million insurance liability. So basically Fitz is a really big deal.
It still technically belongs to Canine Companions, so it has special rules to follow. He has to brush his teeth every day, he can’t be outside in an unfenced area without a leash unsupervised, he has special exercises he has to do and, much to Fitz’s dismay, he doesn’t can’t play tug of war.
He can, however, play basketball, go bowling, color, retrieve books, play cards, close and open refrigerators, kiss you, etc. “He’s pretty amazing,” admits Tonya.
But still, Fitz knows that when Tonya puts on his work jacket, collar, and the occasional bow tie if he has to work through a trial, it’s time to go.
With a 40-hour work week, Fitz assists clients in a criminal justice setting. He helps victims of crime, witnesses and others who may need him to help alleviate their stress and anxiety in various settings and through forensic interviews, medical examinations and court hearings.
Tonya and Fitz primarily work at child advocacy centers like Owens House, a non-clinical home where children can feel comfortable while being questioned or examined.
“I know personally that with the forensic interviews I’ve done since we started using Tonya and Fitz, I have a much better rapport with my clients, they’re so much more comfortable,” says Maribeth Bowman. , a forensic investigator for Owens House. “The other day I asked a child, ‘So how are you now that we’ve talked?’ and she said, ‘Well, having this dog here has been so great.’ »
During the very first medical Fitz was assigned to, Tonya placed Fitz in the bedroom on his bed and then left. During interviews and exams, Tonya is never present. An hour had passed and Tonya was sitting there thinking, “Wow, I don’t know how long this is supposed to take.”
The nurse came out and told Tonya the child wouldn’t undress so they could start the exam, then asked, “Do you think Fitz would put on one of our gowns?” “So I put Fitz in a gown, put him back in the room, and within 30 minutes the kid was undressed and they were done with the exam,” Tonya recalled.
Although Tonya is not personally in the rooms comforting the victims, her role is just as important. “She knows what to do and it’s worth her weight in gold to me,” says Brad. “She’s able to walk in there and introduce the kid to Fitz. I don’t know how she does it, but even (for) some of those kids who are more hesitant around animals, within seconds, boom! They are attached to Fitz. Whatever unspoken bond they have together, it’s quite interesting to see how they work together.
wings of hope
While both Fitz and Tonya have big jobs, Tonya also has a really big side project as president of the Wings of Hope Pediatric Foundation. She helped start the nonprofit in 2010 after losing not one but two children to spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that affects the central nervous system, peripheral nervous system and voluntary muscle movement. , or, as Tonya describes it, Lou Gehrig for kids. Children with it are born with the greatest strength they will ever have, but as they grow, their bodies lose strength. Their lungs never fully develop, so they lose the ability to breathe and eat.
In 2006, Tonya and her husband David lost their first child, Piper, to SMA Type 1 after a five month and 10 week battle after being diagnosed. Then, in 2009, Tonya had twin daughters, Julia and Hanna. Julia was healthy, but Hanna was also diagnosed with SMA.
At the time, Hanna was placed in hospice care with Hospice Complete, the only one in the area that accepted pediatric patients. Through this care, she met Dr. Dan Trotman and Stephanie Miller, RN.
“I have these two healthy children, I was trying to work. I finally took some time off, but how do you focus on caring for your sick child and cooking, cutting the grass, doing this kind of daily chores?” Tonya remembers thinking.
When Tonya stopped working, she wondered where to find money for all they had to pay for their regular bills as well as medications and other expenses. “We have been blessed. My husband has a good job, but (some people) who left work have no money coming in,” she notes. “Or maybe you have two incomes, but when you cut one and only get one, it’s not enough to pay for everything. So not only do you worry about your child dying, but you have to worry about all these other things.
That’s where Wings of Hope comes in. Above all, Tonya wanted families to focus on making memories rather than worrying.
Now, Wings of Hope, families or social workers will complete an application that is not based on family needs or finances. For example, if a family wants their house cleaned, Tonya or a volunteer will clean their house. If a volunteer is unable to clean the house, they will hire a cleaning service to do so.
Occasionally, a local service provider hears about Wings of Hope and offers their services free of charge to families in need. For example, one lawn service heard about the nonprofit through Rick and Bubba’s Charity Charge and offered to provide free lawn services to families in its zip code.
“We put tires on cars. We pay car insurance. We recently had a mother whose car was repossessed, so we paid everything to get the car back to her. We bought stoves. We bought washing machines,” Tonya lists. “You know these families come to us with something they need to keep going, asking us to help ease their financial burden, so we help them.”
One Christmas day, a child wanted to come home from the hospital, but the family could not afford to buy the medicine the children needed. The hospital wasn’t going to send the child home without his medication, so Wings of Hope paid for it so the child could celebrate the holiday at home.
As of October 2021, the Wings of Hope Pediatric Foundation has helped 63 families, with Tonya serving to help as president of the association since 2021 after the death of Dan, the former president.
cause and effect
Since Tonya wanted us to focus this article on Fitz and Wings of Hope, we had to ask the others to find out more about her.
“All she does is make sure people are taken care of and their needs are met, whether emotionally or financially, and she never hesitates to step in when she needs it.” , says Maribeth. “She never hesitates to help anyone.”
Brad echoes a similar sentiment. “I love what she’s done,” says Brad. “And it surprised me at first because it was a huge step, taking what she knew at the district attorney’s office and going down that road. But I’m so glad she did it because it benefited us all and it wouldn’t be here without her, so I think we all owe her.
Both agree that teamwork is key to what she does. Tonya says Fitz has also helped her, calming her down and making her less stressed as she goes about life and working through her own trauma as she works with others. “Work with him,
I learned a lot about how children and people in general will overcome their trauma,” says Tonya. “Through some of these kids you can see how resilient they are and they can take a bad thing and turn it around. and continue to move forward in their lives and do good things.
Tonya likes to ask people who have worked with Fitz to describe him in one word. Answers are stuck on his corkboard behind the couch in his office: Courage. Soft. Magnet.
What about an answer for Tonya? We would say: disinterested.