Meet Fiona and Verlin

Posted 3 years ago in the Impact series, Our partnerships categories

In celebration of World Teacher Day, Canine Partners is sharing the story of how assistance dogs help disabled people flourish in their professional careers.

Fiona Airey was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome in 2010. Fiona, who is a primary school teacher, saw her confidence diminished by the vulnerable position that her condition put her in.

Fiona, who lives in Essex, said: “By 2001 I had started my career in teaching and I was very nervous about walking around school where I worked as a teacher, or anywhere with lots of people out of fear of being bumped and hurt. I would walk next to a wall or with someone, like my sister, next to me as I was so concerned my shoulder would dislocate if it was knocked. The pain levels were huge and the world just became smaller and smaller.”

Fiona encountered difficulties in both her personal and professional life, due to a lack of understanding of the condition: “My previous workplace didn’t understand or implement the adaptations they needed to make for me, so I felt as though everything I had worked hard for in my life, and my career, were at risk. I am exceptionally stubborn and I felt as though asking for help was weak. I felt isolated and there wasn’t a lot of compassion, which was very sad.”

Fiona’s life and career changed when she was partnered with assistance dog Verlin, provided by Canine Partners, in 2014.

Fiona said: “On the day I got ‘the phone call’ to say I had been matched with a dog, I was at school in a class and had just had a really tough day. The call came and they said ‘we think we’ve got a dog for you’ – every single stress of the day just disappeared. My colleague, Siobhan, said I was almost jumping up and down with excitement! That’s when my canine partner, Verlin, came into my life.”

“When she first came back to work with her new canine partner, Verlin, I was watching him working and realised the impact that he would have on Fiona.” Said Siobhan, Fiona’s colleague. “You could see how much he enjoyed helping her, as well as the respect the children had for what he was doing too – they immediately learnt so much from watching him.”

Having canine partner Verlin has given Fiona the confidence and freedom to pursue new adventures with the safety of her canine companion by her side.

“He just opened everything back out for me. It wasn’t just the obvious things like picking up items I dropped or opening doors and filling the washing machine, as all of those things were on the tick list of tasks I knew he would do.” said Fiona. “It was all the things I didn’t expect, like the confidence that came back to me and the ability for me to see a future. I had the confidence for my career to take off, to be in a classroom, and to be around people because Verlin was there.”

Fiona’s friends and family, including her sister Karen, have been able to see the huge impact that having Verlin has had on her life, as well as on the relationships most important to her.

Karen said: “Being partnered with canine partner Verlin has made a huge difference to Fiona’s life. She’ll go out and she’s totally

self-sufficient. On a personal level, Fiona and I can go out as sisters. We like to go to London to the theatre and other things people take for granted, but Fiona and I can now go and do it because she feels more protected in large crowds by having Verlin with her.”

Since being partnered with Verlin, Fiona has seen her career as a Deputy Head teacher go from strength to strength.

Fiona said: “I have always been stubbornly independent and I think that was why the darkness of my physical condition was so huge. Now my independence is back there are no barriers to what I want to do in life or in my career, whereas before I had Verlin I didn’t think I’d be able to teach anymore.”

Having Verlin has also offered Fiona the opportunity to teach her students that everyone has the ability to go on and reach their goals.

“Since having Verlin and being at my current school, they see me as just me. They see the professional that I am and that I happen to come with an assistance dog who enables me to do my job. It shows everyone at the school, whether it’s a child, a parent or a colleague, that everyone can do what they want to do but there might have to be an adaptation in order for them to do it. That’s a huge part of our education – enabling everyone to do what they want to do and to completely fulfil their absolute future potential. There is the role Verlin has for me in enhancing my life, the role he has at school, which enhances school life, and there is the role he has out in society as an ambassador for people who need adaptations to be the most able person they are.”

Lenny, who has worked alongside Fiona as Head Teacher for over two and a half years, has also seen the wider impact that Fiona and Verlin’s partnership has had on the school: “When the teachers and students see Fiona and know they can be successful in any field. They know they’ve got the support they need here as well, because they’ve seen how we’ve adapted so Fiona can have an assistance dog in school. I am confident that Fiona can do her job effectively and go above and beyond, like she does every day, because she’s got Verlin there.”

With Verlin by her side, Fiona feels ready to take on more challenges with confidence and enthusiasm.

“I have recently completed my National Professional Qualification for Head Teachers and have now started my first position as a Head Teacher. With Verlin, there is absolutely nothing holding me back from being as successful or as ambitious as I want to be.” Said Fiona. “I feel alive again as I have a future. Where there was a weight holding me back, as if there was something tied on to me stopping me from  going forwards, Verlin has just taken all that away and is running ahead, clearing the path for me. Nothing can stand in our way.”

This World Teacher Day, Canine Partners is celebrating how assistance dogs like Verlin can transform the lives of adults with disabilities so that they can live full and active lives with their families and in the workplace.


Watch Fiona’s full story here

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