Carmel fundraiser helps unite autistic boy with life-changing therapy dog

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TJ Durbin can wear a harness attached to Sunny, his therapy dog, to walk independent of his parents. (Submitted photo)

TJ Durbin can wear a harness attached to Sunny, his therapy dog, to walk independent of his parents. (Submitted photo)

Seven-year-old TJ Durbin loves his dog, Sunny. The dog follows him everywhere he goes, and TJ even likes to climb into the dog’s kennel and lay down next to him.

But TJ’s bond with Sunny goes beyond what’s normally felt between an owner and a pet. TJ has been diagnosed with severe autism, and this therapy dog has changed his life. Not just for the boy but his family as well.

It all started with a September 2015 fundraiser held by Friends Helping Friends, a nonprofit started by Blair Clark, a well-known singer and business owner in Carmel. The Main Street event featured a dunk tank, games and live entertainment and raised $2,000 to help pay for the therapy dog.

“This is an amazing, amazing dog,” Clark said. “He’s made a major impact on not just TJ and his family. It has enriched TJ’s life in so many ways, and now the parents can relax a little bit because Sunny is so amazing.”

TJ can now wear a harness tethered to Sunny so TJ can walk independently without his parents.

“With Sunny present, we tested out his training at a park that contained a lake we were always afraid to take TJ to before, fearing he would run off,” said his father Tim Durbin. “We watched both of them carefully in a spot away from the lake, and when TJ started to wander off, a command launched Sunny after him racing until he had gotten in front of him and stopped him. How wonderful this was and how much peace of mind it gave us.”

Clark started Friends Helping Friends to honor his sister LaNiece Clark, who died of cancer in 2004 at age 50.

The organization is gearing up for its big 2016 Spring Gala at 7 p.m. May 20 at the Ritz Charles. The event will feature Clark’s band The Fun Factor Band, with special musical guest Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard on French horn. Miss America 2009 Katie Stam will also be in attendance. Tickets cost $60 per person and benefit the Indiana Children’s Wish Fund. For more, visit www.friendshelpingfriendsinc.org.

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