Aug. 23 event in Winnebago raises funds to assist veterans suffering anxiety disorders

Staff Report

WINNEBAGO, Illinois — Saturday, Aug. 23, Westlake Golf Course in Winnebago will be the scene of the fourth annual “Hats For Heroes” event to benefit a life-changing organization called “Circle of Change,” which works to help veterans suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), TBI (traumatic brain injury) and other serious anxiety disorders.

The “Hats for Heroes” event begins at 9 a.m. with golf and will feature a live auction and fund-raising raffle. A few of the hats up for grabs are signed by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird pilots, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Drew Brees, Paul Hornung, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Kane, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Cal Ripken Jr., Tiger Woods, Clay Matthews, Lou Brock, John Elway and many other popular sports figures. All proceeds go to benefit the Circle of Change Veterans Dog Program.

Veterans suffering from the aftereffects of combat, find refuge at Circle of Change. Over the course of the 13 weeks, veterans — in conjunction with professional dog trainers — work to rehabilitate dogs that have had a difficult time learning in traditional obedience classes for a variety of reasons.

In recognizing a dog’s needs, the veteran begins to understand the reasons for the dog’s behavior,” said Lou Matjasko, executive director of Circle of Change. “Lack of respect, anxiety, frustration, depression, noise and touch sensitivity, as well as rebellious and destructive behaviors, are all common problems we see in the dogs we work with in the class. These happen to be many of the same characteristics of the veterans served by the program.”

Through the experience of helping the dogs, these men and women are able to relearn the skills of communication, the value of limits, how to set realistic goals, and the appreciation of differences — skills often lost when a veteran has to cope with the stress of returning home from combat.

I think the program has a special perspective that isn’t offered through standard programs,” said retired Air Force physician Dr. Robert Slack. “It gives veterans the ability to become active participants in their own treatment and rehabilitation.”

Members of the class are referred exclusively through the Veteran’s Administration (VA) clinics and Vet Centers. Circle of Change classes are offered both in Madison, Wisconsin, through the Dog Den, and in Rockford, through both B & B Canine and at Dave’s Doggie Den. The dogs are selected by the training facility and have a range of personalities, ages and challenges — just like their veteran counterparts.

Erin Rabon, owner of “Kona,” one of the dogs worked with at Dave’s Doggie Den, said: “When we rescued our Golden-doodle in December, she was petrified of everything. She would shy away from any touch, never wagged her tail, and ran away when we would try to let her outside. It was really stressful on the dog and on our family. Kona ended up being the perfect candidate for Circle of Change classes. I think the ability for the veterans to relate to her anxiety gave them special insight. A few months after beginning, we saw really positive differences in her behavior.”

Circle of Change is designed to change the lives of not only the veterans suffering from PTSD, but the dogs as well. A former participant of the program sums it up beautifully, “through the program, you start to see that change is possible, which gives us hope.”

For more information, visit or call Lou Matjasko at (815) 262-1491, and for “Hats for Heroes,” sign up with John Mehlbaum at (815) 721-4270.

Posted Aug. 20, 2014

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