Neighbors across fences

John Fairchild, pastor of Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church, visits with Nate Terani, veteran coordinator with Soldier’s Best Friend, at the groundbreaking ceremony.

It has been a dream of John Burnham’s for more than five years. The Peoria veterinarian, who for 26 years has cared for animals at the same location – northeast corner of 67th and Peoria avenues - has embarked on a journey to bring new beginnings, not only for four-legged creatures, but for those who suffer from combat-related injuries.

Burnham and his non-profit organization, Soldier’s Best Friend, broke ground Feb. 18 on a site at 75th Avenue and Acoma Drive. Called Soldier’s Best Friend Training Campus, the site will house a service dog training program. A 4,640-square-foot building with flexible open interior space for veteran/dog team training is planned for completion by the end of May.

“It’s mind-boggling to think five years ago, we started training service dogs for PTSD,” Burnham said.

Burnham’s wife, Jan, said her late father-in-law, Ralph Burnham, a veteran, was her husband’s inspiration for the training facility.

During his presentation, Burnham told those who attended the groundbreaking that, so far, SBF has rescued 110 dogs from organizations around the state.

“We’re averaging 70 to 80 inquiries a month from veterans interested in the program,” he said.

SBF receives 1,000 inquiries a year, predominantly in state, from individuals asking how the program and the process  works, Burnham said. Up to now, SBF has relied on donated space, but that generosity has put limitations on the training as well. The new training campus offers an entirely different atmosphere.

There will be a small office, reception area, storage, a kennel for four dogs, grooming space and restrooms. A parking lot, outdoor training space, fencing, landscaping, lighting, signage and minor improvements to an existing administrative office – all are part of the project as a whole.

Instead of four days a week in donated space, the campus will offer training six days a week. From 16 hours a week to 40 to 50 hours a week is another plus.

On a pamphlet handed out to groundbreaking attendees, the benefits of the training campus are listed:

• Serve more veterans per year

• Rescue more Arizona homeless dogs

• Increase training hours per week

• More flexibility in training schedule

• Offer extended hours for evening and weekend training

• Provide temporary housing for rescued dogs while in transition

• Option to partially pretrain dogs in certain circumstances

• Provide onsite training classes for fosters

• Create a new community resource

• Expand volunteer engagement opportunities

One of the benefits not listed is the fact that next door is Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church, whose pastor, John Fairchild, has been so supportive of the campus. There is a fence that divides the two properties.

Fairchild said, “We need to talk about taking the fence down. I like taking fences down. My goal as a church is to meet people, (learn) what’s in their hearts, and try to help them.”

He will have to wait a while, at least until the end of May. A construction fence will be erected in the next couple weeks to ensure everyone’s safety while the campus is being built.

It does not come without a cost. Total capital needs for the project is $750,000. SBF has until Aug. 15 to come up with $250,000 to meet the Dorrance Family Foundation matching gift challenge.

Rick Cohen, president of MACO Construction Services, said he has already been contacted by subcontractors and suppliers, who are offering many donated services and products.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be associated with such a project,” Cohen said.

Architect Rick Moore, president of RMA Design Group, was similarly on board right away. He met with Burnham about a year ago.

“I said, ‘Stop, I’m in.’ I’m really proud to be involved in this project.”

Burnham did not forget local residents who are supportive. He pointed to Korean War veteran Lewis Rogers, who has lived at his home on Acoma Drive for 40 years. He’s been mowing the pasture on the SBF property near his home.

Individuals or organizations interested in volunteering or donating to the SBF training campus project can call 623-218-6486, or visit SoldiersBestFriend.org.