Operations Freedom Paws – CNN Hero 2012
Mary Cortani grew up in Santa Cruz, CA. When she wasn’t sailing, swimming or fishing she was with dogs. One of her neighbors had a guide dog, and as Mary learned how the dog had been trained to help its master navigate a world he couldn’t see, she became interested in training dogs herself. She joined the Army, and was one of the last of the US Army’s WACs (Women’s Army Corps); she served from 1975 to 1984. Mary became a certified Army Master Instructor of Canine Education as well as an American Kennel Club Certified Canine Good Citizen© Evaluator. When she left the Army, Mary felt lost, and quickly learned how difficult it is to get out of the military and not know what the next step should be. She attended college in Boston, earned a degree in computer science and returned to California. Still training dogs on the side, she worked in high tech for several years, eventually owning her own information technology consulting company. In 2007 she decided to return to her first love and opened K9 Coach Plus as a full-time private dog trainer.
Always focused on helping others, Mary routinely volunteers for several organizations including Habitat for Humanity, Second Harvest Food Bank, Christmas in April, and also as a canine instructor for Monterey County Search and Rescue Dogs. Mary remains active with MCSARD, and is currently serving on the board. Mary founded Operation Freedom Paws in January of 2010, when a Marine combat veteran contacted her. After waiting for a service dog for a year, he wondered if she could somehow help. She realized that by carefully selecting a shelter animal, she could get him a dog immediately. With her background as a veteran and dog-trainer, Mary was uniquely qualified to establish the Operation Freedom Paws program. In September of 2011, OFP became a 501(c) 3 non-profit. This program, by carefully evaluating and matching shelter dogs to clients and training them together, has helped over 100 veterans with PTSD, TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), and/or mobility issues. Also in the program are many civilians whose quality of life has been improved by training their dogs to assist with medical conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy. There is no cost for dogs or training to OFP clients– just a commitment to love their dogs, do their homework, and complete the 48-week training to test/certify as a Service Dog Team.
For her work with Operation Freedom Paws, Mary has been honored by the Napa Red Cross (October, 2011 Hero award); CNN (2012 Top Ten CNN Hero); the City of Gilroy (Proclamation, January 2013); California State Assemblyman Luis Alejo (Proclamation, January 2013) and Gilroy Chamber of Commerce (“Good Egg” award, January 2013). She is also considered a hero by the many veterans she has helped.
Mary’s dream is to have a Canine Education Center where promising rescue dogs can be fostered and learn basic obedience training with volunteer handlers. The Center will also provide an event arena, specialized supplies, day-care, kennel services and a supervised dog park for clients/members. Proceeds from these services will help fund the Operation Freedom Paws Service Dog program. OFP has already established a mentor training program which allows and encourages advanced students to try their hand at running classes and helping fellow trainees. The Center will be a place where graduates can learn to evaluate and train service dogs with new clients, allowing OFP’s programs to expand outside of Northern California.
Mary Cortani’s Website: