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Utah woman chosen to receive canine companion

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wanda Woodrum, of Pleasant Grove, with 3-year-old Jacob Averett on her lap, gathers with her family and friends Thursday to meet Barnsley, the ambassador dog for Canine Assistants, at Smith’s in Provo. Woodrum will receive her dog in January 2013 when she travels to Alpharetta, Ga., for a two-week training camp.

By cimaron Neugebauer

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Nov 29 2012 04:36PM
Updated Mar 6, 2013 11:34PM

Provo • Growing up in Georgia as a 16-year-old, Wanda Woodrum was ready to graduate high school early and aspired to be an actress in 1974.

"I was invincible, I was 16," she said.

A major car accident stifled her plans and left her badly burned and missing a leg, but she has tried not to let her injuries overshadow her optimism to live a full life. . Now 38 years later, the 55-year-old Pleasant Grove woman is getting new help in the form of a four-legged friend who will assist in daily tasks.

On Thursday, three organizations presented Woodrum with a plaque honoring her as a service dog recipient during a ceremony at a Smith’s Food & Drug store. The gift means Woodrum will be given a brand new puppy in January, when she will travel to Georgia to train with her companion. .

Woodrum was driving her Volkswagen Bug on a winter day in 1974 when a construction gravel truck crashed into her and caused her gas tank to explode. The car went up in flames.

Woodrum was disabled with burns on more than 60 percent of her body and had to have her left leg amputated. She spent three months in the hospital but was determined to Utah and start college at Brigham Young University — a goal she achieved.

It wasn’t until after she arrived at Utah to attend BYU that she realized she no longer could do everything she used to.

When the first snowfall happened during her freshman year, Woodrum wanted to run across the field, but with a wooden limb for a leg, it was all but impossible until friends helped out.

"My roommates let me put my arms around them and they held me up and ran me across the field," she said.

That was a defining moment for her and a reality check.

She realized she couldn’t run, dance or do many of the things she wanted to. She had to reevaluate her goals. She changed her major to elementary education and became a teacher, working in the Granite School District for awhile. Her health has deteriorated as the years have passed by. The burns on her body affected her immune system and brought on new allergies and increased nerve damage.

"My disability has kind of increased over the years," Woodrum said.

Through the Canine Assistants program, which is sponsored by Smith’s and the Milk-Bone brand, Woodrum will soon have four more legs to help her fetch things she can’t.

Sitting next to her in the store on Thursday was a full-grown golden retriever ambassador dog named Barnsley. The dog she will get may be a golden retriever, a golden doodle, or a mix, but she along with about 15 of her closest family and friends who showed up to congratulate her are all looking forward to it.

The cost of training a dog is about $20,000, which includes teaching the animal specific tasks such as picking up dropped items, opening doors or turning on lights.

Lynn Engum, a volunteer and certified trainer with the nonprofit Canine Assistants, said donating one of 70 service dogs a year nationwide is part of a needs-based program for children and adults with disabilities.

Marsha Gilford, Smith’s vice president of public affairs, said the program began with donating a dog to Logan for the city’s police K-9 unit. Fourteen years later, the program has expanded to include donations to individuals in need.

Woodrum applied to receive a service dog about two years ago and was elated to learn she was selected. Typically there is a waiting list with more than 2,000 applicants who must wait up to five years to connect with a service animal, Engum said.

Woodrum now works in human resources for a company, is a life coach and works as a vocational rehab counselor.

"Everybody goes through levels of changes in their limitations," Woodrum said. "I really feel we are all on the road [in life] together," she said adding everyone faces big changes. "Mine just came when I was 16."

cimaron@sltrib.com

Twitter: @CimCity

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