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Hustling for a hound

The Gebeck children Nathan, 10, and twins Clara and Jack, 6, are looking forward to having a canine family friend. A 5K race during the Two Harbors Winter Frolic will raise money for teh local family to get a companion dog that's trained to be helpful as well as gentle around Clara and Jack, who have special needs. Photo by LaReesa Sandretsky.

A 5k race during the Two Harbors Winter Frolic will raise money for a local family with special needs kids to get a companion dog.

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The Gebecks are just like any family with three kids – busy.

Their house was a beehive of activity on a recent Friday afternoon. Ten-year-old Nathan was snuggled up on the couch watching YouTube videos on his iPad. Jack, 6, was at the kitchen table having an early dinner and Clara, his twin sister, was in the den working on an art project.

On top of three high-spirited kids, Jill and Chris Gebeck are hoping to add a dog to the family this year.

“My oldest has always wanted a dog,” Jill said.

But unlike most families, picking a dog out at the local shelter just isn’t an option. The 6-year-old twins were born prematurely and have a number of special needs. For example, verbal communication is a challenge for both. Clara sometimes has seizures and Jack uses a wheel chair to increase his mobility. An untrained, rowdy pup could be risky for the kids.

So Jill began looking at other options and found out about therapy dogs. The canine companions undergo training to be easygoing and gentle, and could be taught to help Clara and Jack with tasks like opening doors or switching on lights. The only obstacle for the family is the price tag – a trained dog costs around $3,000. The idea of owning a dog had to be put on the backburner since the Gebeck’s financial resources are committed to building a wheelchair-accessible house.

Then, Jill’s friend Brenda Swanson had an idea. The active business owner and mom of two decided to add just one more thing to her plate – a 5K fundraiser for the Gebecks.

“I just really thought it would be a great thing for the community. So many people know this family,” Swanson said.

She said she recently met a woman whose young son got a companion dog, and it had changed his life.

“I think it would be great for (the Gebecks) to be given an opportunity to have a dog that can enhance their lives,” Swanson said.

The 5k race will take place on Feb. 8 as part of the Winter Frolic, starting and ending in a heated tent in downtown Two Harbors, adjacent to the Lake County Historical Society. Registration is $20 with a family cap of $60; the entry fee includes a t-shirt. A one-mile fun run/walk will also take place, costing $20 per family. All proceeds will go to the Gebeck’s fund for a companion dog.

“I think it would be fun having a dog around,” said Nathan, the Gebeck’s oldest child. He insists the dog will be called Toby in honor of his favorite YouTube comedian, but mom says nothing is set in stone yet.

Animals have long been used for therapy, and when a well-behaved dog visits their home, Jill can see the effect it has on the twins. Clara, who can sometimes be a tad high-strung, she said, calms down when she’s petting a pup. Jack uses his hands to explore the world and Jill said he loves stroking her sister’s dog.

“It’s so fun to see the kids’ reactions,” she said.

In addition, some dogs turn out to be “seizure sniffers” – able to detect seizures before they happen. There are no guarantees, but a companion dog could potentially have that skill, which would make preparing for Clara’s seizures much easier for the family.

Having a dog could also bring the twins one step closer to having a normal childhood. Despite significant bumps in the road like upcoming orthopedic surgeries, the Gebecks try to maintain a normal life for the kids. Two personal care assistants, who have almost become a part of the family, help Jill out during the day. The twins attend kindergarten at Minnehaha Elementary, where Jill said they’ve easily adjusted thanks to supportive teachers, kids and parents.

“They’ve really embraced them,” Jill said. “It takes a community.”

As the sun set Friday evening, Clara grinned broadly while scattering bright orange sparkles on a white page for a school art project. Nathan navigated the iPad to Jack’s favorite song, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and a huge smile split Jack’s face as his mom sang along. Chris would be home from work soon to join the family for dinner. The only thing missing from the happy family scene was a big friendly dog sprawled on the living room rug.

“I’ve wanted a dog ever since I was born. I have to be honest,” Nathan said. “Jack and Clara love dogs, too.”

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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