In Part One of our Kevin Li Story, we learned how Kevin survived a near-fatal childhood illness and overcame the resulting disabilities while working toward his goal of becoming a dog trainer. In Part Two, we learn how Cesar was instrumental in that process.
By Jon Bastian
Kevin discovers Cesar
When Kevin Li was eleven years old, he met the woman who led him to his ongoing volunteer work with Animal Life Savers, but it was also that same year that he first discovered “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan” on the National Geographic Channel, and the effect of that discovery was profound.
Kevin’s mother, Winnie, explains, “Despite all controversies about TV’s influence on children, TV was Kevin’s home language teacher. He learnt through repetition and watching the programs repeatedly.” He was particularly interested in programs about animals, but especially Cesar’s.
Since he started watching, Winnie continues, “Every birthday, every Christmas, when asked what he would like to have, he only wished for Cesar’s books, Cesar’s videos and Cesar’s DVDs. He never missed any ‘Dog Whisperer’ episodes because he made sure that they were recorded.”
Up to that point, it had taken Kevin a lot of hard work to achieve the successes he had, but his specific interests in Cesar and his work gave him confidence and self-esteem. His passion in dogs and in helping others made him focused toward his long term goals. And then, in early 2009, Kevin had his first opportunity to meet Cesar in person.
The turning point
“Our lives were completely changed when we met Cesar in person when he came to the Resorts Atlantic City, New Jersey,” Winnie explains. “We bought the VIP Stage tickets. We drove three hours from North Jersey. We got there three and a half hours before the show began.
“Kevin and I sat outside the entrance door of the Superstar Theater patiently waiting for the magic moment to see ‘Cesar Live’. Kevin brought along three of Cesar’s Books with the hope to have them autographed.” Winnie was doubtful whether Cesar would have time to sign one book, much less three, but Kevin never stopped believing.
The month of the show, April, was (and is) the ASPCA’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, in which they encourage people to “Go Orange for Animals.” In honor of the occasion, Kevin brought Cesar a special gift as well: An orange T-shirt with a picture of Daddy on the front and an award-winning photograph Kevin had taken of shelter dog Hailey meeting a pet store hamster on the back.
At this point, though, it was still just Kevin’s dream to meet Cesar, and Winnie was prepared for disappointment. When the head of security finally ushered them backstage, Winnie says, “I believed this had to be the supernatural intervention,” and she and Kevin were beside themselves.
The meeting and its aftereffects were totally unexpected by both Winnie and Kevin. “Cesar listened attentively as Kevin mumbled his heart-warming speech before presenting the T-Shirt to him,” Winnie tells us, but then, “Cesar graciously accepted and opened the T-Shirt and put it on right away… We did not see that coming.”
He then gave Kevin a big hug, and sat down with him, taking his time as he signed all three books. “My heart was bleeding with gratitude and tears of joy (for Kevin),” Winnie said. “The experience with Cesar was monumental. From experience, Cesar became real… he lives in our lives. It was no longer a dream. Cesar had given us hope. To Kevin, his whole world became real. His dreams turned into possibilities.”
Through the following years, Kevin and Winnie had several more opportunities to meet Cesar, including a North Shore Animal League adopt-a-thon, the Mutt-i-Grees launch at the Tribeca Cinema in New York City, the Great Dog Adventure in San Diego, and the National Family Pack Walk in Washington DC.
Each event and each new meeting with Cesar reinforced Kevin’s determination to succeed. Winnie says, “Cesar never ceases to share his learning and experiences. He shares unconditionally. Every episode is a lesson learnt.” The events they have attended “provide us with the opportunities to meet people from all walks of life and from all over the country. This is a great exposure for Kevin and vital for his social skills and personal growth.”
The biggest challenge
None of the previous meetings could have prepared them for early 2013, however, when Winnie and Kevin came to the Dog Psychology Center in Los Angeles to attend the Training Cesar’s Way Fundamentals of Dog Behavior and Training I Course in May. Now, they were no longer just familiar faces among the fans. It was time to work with Cesar directly.
This was the ultimate challenge for Kevin who, remember, had been tagged early on as having “Communication Impaired or Language Learning Disability.” The change in Kevin was profound. According to Winnie, “By the end of the third day at (Training Cesar’s Way), he suddenly grew up. He started asking questions, his humorous jokes cracked Cesar up and his ability to express his gratitude to Cesar in the class — and in public — totally came as a surprise to me.”
By the time graduation rolled around, Kevin was confident enough to make a speech thanking Cesar in front of the entire group, inspiring Cesar to give Kevin the necklace that he hasn’t taken off since.
Cesar explained to us. “I didn’t know where he came from — his background, or about his learning and communication disabilities. I certainly knew that Kevin was a big fan and his mother was a huge supporter of his dreams, and I’d seen them at five or six seminars.“So, (at Training Cesar’s Way), I asked him why he keeps coming, and he reminded me how different each of the seminars were and how much he loved the content — and how funny I was. It’s a beautiful story for him to share that with me. I’ve always wondered whether I’m making an impact on any of my kids with that side of me. Kevin certainly makes me feel like I’m making an impact in other kids’ lives.”
Looking to the future
Kevin has at least one other surprise for Cesar. It was because of Cesar (and Junior) receiving honorary degrees from Bergin University of Canine Studies that Winnie first became aware of the school. After Kevin finishes his associate degree locally at the coincidentally named Bergen Community College in New Jersey, he will be moving west. His ultimate goal is to receive his bachelor’s degree through Bergin’s Dog Education Program, focusing on training service dogs, as well as training therapy dogs for autistic children.
As mentioned previously, Kevin’s dog Luna will continue her training to become an autism service dog, and Kevin is still working with the rest of the family’s five dogs — Kimiko, Peanut, Princess, and Annie.
Training Cesar’s Way was Luna’s first experience herding, and true to her breed she took to it quickly although, Kevin tells us, “She pounced on the sheep like they were little fluffy toys.”
Still, the week for both of them was invaluable. Kevin continues, “It was a marvelous, wonderful experience and I couldn’t describe it any other way. To learn from Cesar Millan himself and expose my dog to all kinds of scenarios — swimming, sheepherding — everything I couldn’t imagine my dog would do — Cesar made it possible.”
Winnie adds, “Dogs have become our best friends. We hope that Kevin’s story would also bring hope or help inspire many children, teens and parents out there. We were inspired by Cesar and our lives were completely turned around with an amazing journey ahead for Kevin.”
Just before the graduation ceremony for Training Cesar’s Way, our video crew interviewed some of the participants, Kevin included. Watching his interview, the only thing apparent is an intelligent, articulate and charming young man who has a bright future ahead of him, and who has refused to let any learning disabilities get in his way.
His final message in that interview was simple and direct. “Cesar, I am forever grateful. I’m slowly following in your footsteps. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done.”
Winnie echoes those thoughts, and leaves us with this reminder, “We wanted to share Kevin’s story with the hope to encourage parents and children who have similar disabilities in their family members, including autism: