By Jon Bastian
Kevin Li is a young man with a future, graduating from high school in a few weeks. He turns nineteen in August, but will have already started community college by then, on the way to attending Bergin University of Canine Studies.
His goal is to become a dog trainer, specifically to train service dogs to work with autistic children, such as the work done by Autism Service Dogs of America. His own dog, Luna, is also in training to become a therapy dog for kids with various disabilities.
At the moment, though, Kevin is proudest of the necklace that he’s been wearing non-stop since May. All of his friends have noticed the crystal around his neck. When they ask, he tells them where it came from — the graduation ceremony for last May’s Training Cesar’s Way Fundamentals I course.
Cesar gave his own necklace to Kevin as a very moving and emotional “thank you” in which both men had to hold back tears. But this was a special moment not just because Kevin has overcome great obstacles to graduate from the course. He and Cesar had even met multiple times before. This moment was special because it could have easily never happened.
But to understand the miracle of that moment, we have to go back to the beginning.
A Life That Almost Never Was
Kevin was born on August 11, 1994, a healthy, quiet and happy kid, and life was normal for him and his family until a terrible night in February, 1996, when a stomach virus led to a high fever, then seizures and a trip to the emergency room.
Kevin’s mother, Winnie, tells the story of what happened after she called 911. “A policeman showed up, wrapped Kevin in a blanket and brought him out to the ambulance waiting outside our house. Kevin was immediately administered with an intravenous fluid drip but he was non-responsive.
“Ten minutes later, he arrived at the ER. Kevin was quickly hooked up but there was no movement. God knows for how long, when I finally heard the most beautiful cry… Kevin came back alive!”
Although Kevin survived the ordeal, it was not without side effects. At the age of four, education and medical experts determined that he was displaying moderately severe signs of developmental delays in language and social areas. His developmental age equivalency at the time was around three years.
He was placed in a preschool handicapped program, spending all of his school time in a small, structured, self-contained class, designed with intensive speech and language remediation that would provide him with the maximum educational opportunity in the least restrictive environment.
He continued receiving special education through elementary school, but then, in his junior year at Palisades Park Jr./Sr. High School in New Jersey, he enrolled in inclusion classes, with both special and general education teachers. He will graduate June 21st, having earned all A’s and B’s during his time in high school.
He has also received the Stephen Gold Scholarship, funded by the North Jersey Special Education Administrators Association, and was inducted into the Eleanor J. Rinker Chapter of the National Junior Honor Society in 2010 and the National Honor Society last year. On top of all that, he participated on the school track team, and volunteered for Animal Life Savers.
A Passion for All Animals
It is this last detail, though, which Kevin’s mother points out as having been instrumental in his success. Even at a young age, he had an incredible passion for animals. He met a dog for the first time at around two or three years old, but he will play with any animal. According to Winnie, this includes dogs, cats, lizards, reptiles, and even ants.
Although Winnie didn’t grow up with dogs, she finally agreed to let Kevin adopt Luna, his shepherd/husky/pit bull mix. As Kevin reports it, his mom was convinced to adopt the eight week old puppy as soon as he held her up and his mother saw her blue eyes.
Even before adopting Luna, though, Kevin had a desire to work with dogs, and a chance encounter at a PetSmart store when he was eleven years old led to his eventual volunteer work with Animal Life Savers.
Another customer at the store asked Kevin to hold her dog’s leash while she finished up her business. Afterwards, seeing how well he handled her dog, the woman explained that she worked at the shelter and always needed volunteers.
At the time, Kevin was too young to volunteer there, but since he turned fourteen, he’s been at the shelter every Saturday, as well as at events and special fundraisers. Every Christmas season, he dresses up as Santa to take pictures with kids and dogs during adoption events.
Since Luna came into their lives three years ago, Winnie began to see huge changes in Kevin, for the better. She told him he was solely responsible for the dog, a challenge he lived up to. Giving him this job to do, along with his volunteer work, taught him responsibility. But it was another encounter that would lead to even bigger things.
When Kevin was eleven years old, he discovered “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan” on TV. Over the next eight years, this would prove to have been a life-changing moment.