Cody McGillem told his mom he loved her for the first time just a week before his fifth birthday.
Before then, most of Cody’s communication with his parents consisted of memorized phrases like “I want juice.”
Cody’s autism means he struggles to communicate, can’t handle too much light or sound and occasionally has what his parents call “meltdowns.”
They hope a service dog will help Cody adjust to the world around him.
A dog trained to anticipate Cody’s meltdowns and guide him through the day costs about $22,000 according to the nonprofit 4 Paws for Ability, which places service dogs with people who need them.
The McGillems raised nearly $14,000 through donations and fundraising at North Side Middle School in Elkhart, where Ambrelie McGillem teaches 7th grade science. That’s enough to get the dog, since 4 Paws only requires families to raise part of the money.
But they are still hoping fundraisers will help both mom and dad go to a required two-week training session with Cody’s dog in Ohio this summer.
Ambrelie credited North Side, and especially the National Junior Honor Society, for working tirelessly so far to raise funds.
“Throughout the course of seven months, everyone in that building at some point did something to raise money for Cody,” she said. ”It’s been a big effort for many people.”
Ambrelie and her husband Tony hope the dog, who will be trained in search and rescue, will also be able to find Cody when the boy hides and doesn't respond to his parents calling for him.
The dog might also help Cody play and interact with other children. He struggles with that, Ambrelie said, because his autism causes him to withdraw.
"You can see that he wants to join in but he can’t, because it’s just too much,” she said.
There’s a fund set up for Cody at gofundme.com/Cody-McGillem.