KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Wanting what’s best for their child is all any parent would fight for.
Talk to the parent of a child with autism, and they will say what’s best may be different than what many think.
For Veronica and Tony Kolojay, the only thing standing in the way of what’s best for their son Cole is four-paws and $17,000.
"We knew he wasn't acting out, it was certain things he couldn't comprehend — his mind couldn't put certain things together to understand and piece together the whole story that we're talking about,” said Tony Kolojay, dad.
Cole's mom Veronica Kolojay wants her son to be able to live life to the fullest.
“We just want Cole to reach his potential, whatever that is, he has gifts to offer the world,” Veronica said.
The gifts of six-year-old Cole Kolojay are those someone may not see at first glance, he’s still tapping into them while navigating life on the autism spectrum.
At the age of four, Cole was diagnosed at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
“And they have like a scale — one to three," Veronica said. "And one is high functioning and three is the most severe, and so he was labeled as a two — so he will need significant support throughout his life is what the official diagnosis said."
Getting the diagnosis in 2019 gave the Kolojays relief in the form of answers, but their journey was only beginning.
One that would mean long waitlists for expensive therapies and interventions insurance doesn’t always cover.
Cole’s autism is coupled with global developmental delays and speech impairment.
Leading up to kindergarten, he only spoke in echolalia, repeating back exactly what was said to him.
“You’d be like, 'Hi, Cole. How are you?' And the response would never be, 'I’m good. How are you?' It wasn’t appropriate. It was, 'Hi, Cole. How are you?” Veronica said.
Cole also experiences repetitive behavior and elopement issues that can interrupt the day-to-day if he’s not on a constant routine.
“And that’s kind of where I find myself a lot in public places when it’s a new environment and it’s getting to be too much for him,” Veronica said. “It’s like, do I stop the behavior and cause this huge meltdown where I am having to lift him up and take him to my car, or do I kind of let it go to keep the peace?"
Tony says it can be difficult to receive judgment from the public.
“The hard part is when Cole may have a breakdown, people are quick to judge, so they look at you as if you don’t have control of your kid, your kid is acting up because they’re bad, you get the strangest looks," Tony said. "You get sometimes, unfortunately, the comments towards you."
Wanting answers, the Kolojays began searching for innovative ways to intervene and help their son’s cognitive diagnosis.
“I just kind of started researching in general therapy dogs because you always hear about therapy animals … autism dogs came up, and I was like, 'I didn’t even know that that was a thing,'” Veronica said.
Cole has always bonded with his family dogs, in a therapeutic way one could say, but since they’ve both passed, he finds comfort in surrounding himself with stuffed animals, many of which he affectionately names ‘doggy.’ So the idea of getting Cole on board for another one (just for him) didn’t take long.
”That would be good,” said Cole, especially for when he cries. “He could just help me and lay down on my stomach.”
Soon after, Veronica found 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit that places service dogs with children and veterans who have disabilities.
“A lot of other organizations that provide service dogs, some of them you don’t have to pay any money, but it’s a 10-year waitlist, whereas 4 Paws for Ability, it’s a two-year waitlist, but you do have to come up with some of the funds yourself,” Veronica said.
The Kolojays were approved for a dog through the agency in August 2021 and now have one year to raise $17,000 of the $40,000 it takes to raise and train one specifically to Cole’s needs.
“Those dogs are so highly trained and highly advanced that they are able to step in, and whether it’s a nudge to the arm or a part of the arm to correct that behavior when they noticed that the child — in this case, Cole — would be kind of streaming off-line, they bring him back to what he supposed to be focused on,” Tony said.
All in the form of a comforting paw from a friend that will always be right by his side to help guide him through new and stressful situations.
“It would give him more freedom,” Veronica said. “That’s what we ultimately want for Cole is more independence and freedom.”
To help Cole get his service dog, donations can be made online.
According to 4 Paws for Ability, the $17,000 is a one-time fee. There are no additional costs for training.
Once the money is raised, the Kolojay family will travel to Ohio, where the agency is based, for nine days of training before returning home with the dog.
Families are responsible for funding travel and lodging for those nine days of training, but 24 families a year can stay at the local Ronald McDonald House, free of charge, as a gift to the agency and the families it serves.
When the dog reaches retirement age, it becomes a family pet.