March 4, 2015
7:43 am

Riley for Billy

A St. Joseph family is working to make history and possibly set a precedent for special needs students in Berrien County and beyond. At the same time, they are in need of some help from all of Michigan's Great Southwest. The Arney family plans to introduce Riley into the St. Joseph Public Schools during the 2014-15 school year as the district's first-ever autism service dog, with the blessing and support of Upton Middle School principal Chad Madarino and the district's special education director Lynn France.
Billy Arney is currently in seventh grade at Upton Middle School, and Riley is in training through Committed Canine of Brownstown, Illinois to be his service dog. Riley will be with Billy starting about halfway through the school year in eighth grade, and accompany him for years to come.
How can the community help? Specialized service dogs and their training are not cheap, and the total price for Riley and his training is going to be around $12,000. Health insurance does not cover the costs of these dogs yet for autism, even as Michigan has taken great strides in mandated autism coverage. That amount of money represents a significant chunk of the family budget. Because Committed Canine is not a 501(c)3 organization, foundation grants have been denied. The family has set up a crowdfunding website that has been live for a few months at and will soon have a Post Office box for contributions, but is in need of more donations.
The family feels that by going public with their efforts to pay for a service dog and enlist the help of the community, the entire area can take pride in what has been done to help a special needs child get the right resources he needs to succeed.
The Arney family has been active on social media for the past several months, building up a base of supporters through Facebook. They provide regular updates at, and are working on fundraisers such as spaghetti dinners or pancake breakfasts to be held this spring and summer. Details on those will be announced on the Riley For Billy Facebook page when they're finalized.
Autism is different in every child and adult that is affected, and for many it's impossible to tell by looking at them that their brains are functioning different from what society considers normal. Billy struggles with social interactions and will often times isolate himself or turn to self-harming behaviors to deal with being overwhelmed. He also suffers from anxiety and depression from not being able to communicate as he'd like to with friends, teachers, family members and more. Among many other responsibilities, Riley is being trained specifically for those behaviors, and to be an icebreaker for other students and the public.
According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. ASD affects far more boys than girls. The CDC puts the instances of autism in boys at 1 in 42 verses 1 in 189 girls, meaning that in one of every two classrooms, on average, there is a male student on the autism spectrum.

Here is a direct link to the Crowdfunding site:
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