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Boy refused visit with Santa due to service dog gets Christmas surprise

BROWNSBURG, Ind. (WISH) — A Christmas disaster turned into a Christmas triumph Monday night.

Santa made a special stop in Brownsburg for one little boy and his service dog. He got a lift from firefighters.

The boy’s family said they were refused service by a different Santa Claus this weekend and ever since, Tyler Burkhart’s parents have been trying to bring the magic back.

Christmas for the Burkhart family has been so difficult through the years because their 8-year-old Tyler has autism and the lights and sounds are just too much.

They thought this year would be different with the help of their service dog, a golden retriever named Ryan.

But on Saturday night, after standing in a long line, they were turned away. The so-called “Bad Santa” and “Bad Elf” said Ryan couldn’t come because he might cause other children problems with their allergies.

“The damage had already been done at that point. You had a very crushed child,” said Tyler’s mother Alyssa Burkhart.

In the 48 hours, his parents have been doing damage control. Tyler has been worried that Santa wouldn’t visit or perhaps the Bad Elf would eat his cookies.

The Brownsburg Fire Territory heard about this and offered to bring Santa by.

So he came on the eve of Christmas Eve not on a red sleigh pulled by nine reindeer, but on eight wheels of a big red fire engine.

But, no matter. The look of awe and amazement on Tyler’s face was the same.

Alyssa had to hold back tears.

“Ryan is a wheelchair to a person who can’t walk. Ryan is his support. Ryan helps him function,” she said.

Alyssa said the last Santa broke the law by banning the service animal.

Alyssa says Ryan’s presence has opened the world to them. Now they go to restaurants and enjoy a normal life for the first time. He goes to school with Tyler, who is a third grader at Reagan Elementary.

“I tell him to come lay on me,” said Tyler about Ryan. “Sometimes he sits down and he gives me his paw.”

Tyler got to honk the horn of the fire engine. But the highlight was spraying the hose down the street.

“I loved it,” he said.

“He’s going to be talking about it for days,” adds Alyssa.

No trip from Santa would be complete without one gift who gave, what else, but a red fire truck to a boy who already loves firefighters and engines.

Tyler’s got a few more requests though, not just for him.

“I want Legos and football cards. And Ryan loves socks. He loves to eat them,” he said.

With a hug and a few photos out front of Santa’s sleigh, it’s clear the magic is back.

That’s the best gift to Alyssa who has been doing all she can to bring the joy of Christmas to her only son, along with his four-legged friend.

Just like the poem, this visit from St. Nick giving all a good night.

“Beyond happiness,” Alyssa said. “I can’t tell you how excited and happy this makes us.”

Every year, the Brownsburg Fire Territory takes Santa on a tour of the neighborhoods though they typically don’t do personal appearances.

Alyssa declined to say which location in Indianapolis the family tried to visit Saturday night. She has contacted them but has not been given much of a response.

While Ryan may be an unusual name for a dog, he was named by the training organization in honor of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. So his name and his job title seem a bit appropriate.


Hamilton County’s ‘Wellness Unit’ part of nationwide effort to improve mental health among officers

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — An initiative to improve employee well-being at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is among a spate of efforts across the nation to address mental health concerns among officers.

Sheriff Dennis Quakenbush announced the department’s new “Wellness Unit”  — devoted to the physical, mental and spiritual health of its deputies, correctional officers and civilian employees — Friday in a Facebook post.

“Our guys really care about the public,” he said Monday in an interview with News 8. “When you see somebody who’s injured or victimized, it really impacts us… We’re only human.”

The Wellness Unit launched in January with funding approved by county council members and commissioners.

Appointments are held off-site at undisclosed locations to protect the privacy of employees. Supervisors are not briefed on which employees seek counseling or what they discuss during sessions.

Information gathered during counseling sessions will not be used to demote or discipline employees, and will only be disclosed if required by law, including when somebody poses an immediate danger to themselves or others.

The department’s entire staff will receive training related to suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, critical incidents, addiction, mindfulness and officer wellness, the sheriff said.

Nearly 1 in 4 police officers has thoughts of suicide at some point in their life, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI); the suicide rate for police officers is four times higher than the rate for firefighters.

Years of daily exposure to stress, trauma and tragedy can have other devastating consequences if appropriate coping skills are not developed, according to Susan Sherer-Vincent, a licensed clinical social worker, certified alcoholism counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist involved in launching the Wellness Unit.

“Think of the hurricanes that come in, in Florida, and think of the palm trees where they bend,” she explained. “But then, what happens afterwards? They go back up. That’s called resilience. We want our officers to bend, not break.”

Until approximately 3 to 5 years ago, officers were often conditioned to “pull [themselves] up by the bootstraps and go to the next call” instead of addressing personal struggles, Sherer-Vincent said.

Cultivating resiliency can be difficult within a law enforcement culture that equates mental health challenges with “weakness,” she said.

“[Officers] are trained to have the warrior mentality,” Sherer-Vincent told News 8. “Truly, they would have been made fun of [in the past for seeking counseling].”

She compared strong, silent officers with underdeveloped coping skills to California’s famed redwood trees.

“They’re pretty sturdy. But what would happen if you took an ax and hit those every single day, day after day, for years? They would eventually fall,” she said.

Quakenbush credits his wife, church and non-law enforcement friends with providing “a really good support system.”

“But sometimes, you need a professional,” he said, urging employees to “talk through” negative emotions instead of turning to alcohol and other substances for temporary relief.

Several internal cases that resulted in disciplinary action during his year-long tenure as sheriff may have been prevented with wellness-focused intervention, Quakenbush said.

He was unable to comment on personnel matters. 

Sources within the department indicated some of the cases involved employees with substance abuse issues that had escalated over time, possibly as a result of work-related stress that had gone unaddressed. 

“I wouldn’t say that [disciplinary action] was happening often,” Quakenbush told News 8. “But seeing it happen and knowing that we probably could have done something about it made it impactful and something that we wanted to make a priority.”

Hamilton County announced its Wellness Unit days after New York City police officials revealed plans to hire a team of psychologists to combat a spike in officer suicides.

On Feb. 13, Indianapolis police officials said they planned to swear in the department’s first full-time therapy dog by the end of March.

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