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Elks' event supports veterans

Paws for Patriots expected to raise $10,000 to help pair a veteran with a guide dog.

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Those in the sold-out crowd of 140 at the Lakewood Ranch Elks Lodge No. 2855 were preparing for a great dinner and drinks and a 90-minute variety show produced by member Phyllis Stolteben on Jan. 14.

It was the annual Paws for Patriots event which raises funds to help Southeastern Guide Dogs pair a service dog with a disabled veteran.

Before the festivities, Mike Jernigan, who helped found the Paws for Patriots program and who represents Southeastern Guide Dogs, stepped to the podium to talk about what the club's generosity will mean to a veteran. He knows first-hand.

Jernigan is a third-generation U.S. Marine, who was severely injured Aug 22, 2004 while serving as the squad leader of his Weapons Platoon in Iraq. His Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device and he lost both his eyes, suffered a crushed cranium and severe injuries to his right hand and left knee.

"Obviously, a guide dog is a tool," Jernigan said. "But for me, the companionship was part of my recovery and rehab."

Jernigan said the Lakewood Ranch Elks' annual contribution of $10,000 to Paws for Patriots is critical.

"Without groups like the Elks, we couldn't do what we do," he said.

Jack Ogren, who was overseeing his final Paws for Patriots event as the Elks' Veterans Committee chairman, said he expected the Jan. 14 event would raise near the $10,000 goal. Ogren said it costs $60,000 to pair just one trained dog with a veteran.

After Jernigan spoke to the crowd, Stolteben's show took center stage and featured various song and dance numbers, and a performance by 12 ballroom dancers from Sarasota's Ballroom City. Janis Merluzzo, who was representing the White Sands Chapter of USA Dance, said the dancers are "formation team competitors" who donated their time to help the cause.



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