The Joy in the Journey – Yeahsen, Grace & Sarah

When an ICAN service dog passes away or retires, the client is placed at the top of the list to receive another service dog from us. We call them successor dogs. At our 2019 December Graduation, 3 of the 11 graduates receiving a dog were successor dogs.

Lisa Condes is Yeahsen’s mother. Yeahsen received Paco as his successor dog. Lisa spoke at our December 2019 Graduation and here is the letter she shared:

Lisa & Yeahsen on stage, as she reads her letter to the graduation guests


It is my honor and privilege to share the ‘joy in the journey’ of three very brave kids tonight. All three of them are graduating with their successor dogs. Grace & Dezzie, Sarah and Thunder, Yeahsen and Paco.

In the past 8 months, each has suffered the loss of their service dogs. They lost so much more than a pet. But, let’s go back to the beginning of when we got our first service dogs. As parents, we felt shear desperation…our children were hurting and they needed help.

Yeahson & Paco


Yeahsen’s behavior excluded him from most daily activities, he was unable to relate to his peers and much of the world. Grace is on the autism spectrum, was non-verbal and using some sign language to communicate. Sarah’s physical limitation excluded her from many activities, especially playing with other children.

Grace & Dezzie


Sarah & Thunder


And then there was joy, there was a light in the darkness. Our service dog, Harmony’s social, friendly, outgoing personality engaged Yeahsen with the rest of the world, she kept him from running away and controlled his behavior until he could control it on his own.

Grace spoke her first words talking for her service dog Charlotte, Charlotte gave Grace her voice. Charlotte was not just a dog, every first Grace had was with Charlotte.

Milan was Sarah’s companion, her helper. With Milan’s help Sarah could play games with the neighborhood kids. Sarah had 25 surgeries, and Milan was right there next to her, helping her through the pain and rehab.

As a mother, for the first time there was joy, not medicating my child, not surgery (YJ has had 13) he was no longer a child balled up on the floor screaming or running away from me. I lifted my face from that familiar position of face down on the bathroom floor, praying for God to help for my child. He sent Harmony, she was the light that brought him out of the darkness.

Then, cancer took them…..Milan in March, Charlotte in July and Harmony in October. Our sweet beautiful blonde was not just our beloved pet, she was Yeahsen’s helper, Yeahsen’s anxiety medication, Yeahsen’s emotional anchor.

Grace’s mom wondered if Grace would ever stop crying since Charlotte’s passing.

Harmony passed away 6 days after she was diagnosed with cancer in her heart. On her last day, we took her to Wine and Wags, seeing all her old friends made her so happy. That evening at 4:40 she met Paco. The two of them communicated, I am sure of it. I know that Harmony asked Paco to take care of her boy, and to pay special attention to mom, because she is going to be sad. At 4:44, 4 minutes later, Harmony collapsed to the floor and had to be carried out. She could let go then, because she knew Paco would be here. We did not know Paco would be our new Service Dog, but Harmony did.

‘Passing of the Torch” Paco & Harmony; Drawing by Kelley Butler Art


Coming into ICAN team training on the first day last week, we were in such a dark place. I didn’t even want to walk in because I didn’t want Yeahsen to be the kid whose service dog just died. We hurt so badly, it was literally putting one foot in front of the other to make into the gym on Monday. I wanted to be excited, but it was too painful. I wanted to be hopeful, but it was too sad.

Let me stop for a minute to really have you think about this…..three mothers bringing their children with disabilities into a maximum security prison to find hope?

Sarah receiving Thunder from Handler Christina at December’s graduation ceremony


Paco’s handler, Mary, at the Indiana Women’s Prison, the minute I saw her and Paco I felt rescued, that’s why I started crying when I walked into the gym that first morning. The shackles of grief were lifted when I saw her and Paco. I knew I would not lose my son to autism again.

Paco’s Handler, Mary, at Indiana Women’s Prison


We are no longer hopeless, because you are not hopeless. We are not forgotten because you are not forgotten. Sadness turned into joy because we got to know Mary and Paco. Paco is such a strong and loyal guy. His focus is Yeahsen, Yeahsen and Yeahsen. Yes, he is friendly, but he is so much more concerned about his boy than being social with other people. At home, he follows Yeahsen everywhere. He even goes into the bathroom with Yeahsen, sitting right next to him at all times. And, Mary, you also got to know Yeahsen. You shared with me how your perspective had changed, and how you understand how someone could love, unconditionally, someone with intellectual disabilities and autism. Lives are changed everywhere because of this amazing program that starts with a puppy and ends up with families finding hope and light in what society sees as a dark hopeless place. All of your contributions to these kids will never be forgotten, you are making a difference in the world.

Grace will be graduating from High School in 2020 with a Core 40 degree, crossing the stage with her new partner Dezzie. Since bringing Dezzie home, Grace has started to draw again, and her smile is back.

Sarah will be off to college in a short 18 months where she will have Thunder right by her side.

Yeahsen will continue at Zionsville High School striving daily toward meaningful work, singing and telling jokes to all his friends.

Yeahsen & Paco at graduation


We know how this relationship with our dogs will go. Right now we are in the fabulous honeymoon stage, yep, we are truly madly in love with our new dogs. But the training is never over, we will work with our service dog partners on a daily basis, gaining more and more of a deep connection and partnership. The dedication we have to our service dogs is returned to us tenfold. And what we know about this part of the journey is that every year, it will get better and better, our love will deepen, our kids will have many more “firsts” that wouldn’t have happened without Paco, Thunder and Dezzie. We have a new appreciation for our successor dogs. We will not waste one minute of time with these precious gifts grieving the past. We are moving forward with courage shown to us by our handlers and our children.

Top: Handler Christina with Sarah & Thunder; Middle: Handler Sonya with Grace & Dezzie;  Bottom: Handler Mary with Yeahsen, Paco and his mother, Lisa