AJ and Levi's Story

Posted on: in [ Placed Service Dog Teams ]

Sponsor Announcement

Levi was named after Levi Kenneth Hoover, a US Army veteran who was killed in action on April 7, 2007. Exactly 10 years later on April 7, 2017, RFI service dog Levi was born. Levi Hoover's legacy remains, bringing joy to the lives of AJ and his family every day. Many thanks to Army veteran and RFI service dog recipient Bobby Henline for sponsoring this amazing service dog throughout his journey to honor Levi Hoover's memory.

Placement | March 2019

AJ, Levi, and their family passed their certifications and were officially named a Service Dog Team in March of 2019. AJ lights up with joy each time Levi performs commands and snuggles him. 

AJ's Story

Our AJ wasn't born to us. He wasn't born in the United States. We knew nothing of his precious life or existence, and he knew nothing of what it meant to be chosen, wanted, loved, and needed. He never knew the word or the meaning of having a family and we never knew how much he would fill a longing in our hearts, until the day the email came.

In June 2011, I received an email from Reece's Rainbow adoption ministry after inquiring about a photo listing of another child. I was told that child had been committed to by another family, but asked if I had come across "Anthony" yet. A photo of a child was included and when I opened up the file, though I can't say with 100% certainty, I'm fairly sure I know what it feels like for your heart to stop beating for a split second, for all your air to get swept out of your lungs, and to be completely and overwhelmingly head over heels in love at first sight.

That first photo was of a little boy, a total stranger, and all I knew was that he was around five years old, had Cerebral Palsy and lived in an orphanage somewhere in Eastern Europe. There were so many questions and my mind was racing, but the one thing I had never been more sure of in my life, was that this little boy was my son. I emailed my husband, Chris, showing him the only photo and little information we had, and said, "Meet your son. Let's go bring him home."

So we did.

We started the process of putting together our international adoption dossier to obtain permission from both our government and the Ukrainian government to make this little one ours forever. We completed everything we needed stateside and were granted a referral date in Kyiv, Ukraine on Dec 22, 2011. We lived in and did life in Ukraine traveling by foot, the metro, and city bus to and from AJ's orphanage daily for six and a half weeks. Then, on Feb 2, 2012 we brought ouf son home, making him a US Citizen the moment our plane landed in Chicago and his tiny feet touched American soil.

Imagine if you will, living your life in one room. Never able to go outside. Never being given the opportunity to play with toys, attend school, grow, develop, feel the warmth of summer on your face or a cool autumn breeze in your hair. You live every moment of every single day laying down in a crib on a plywood mattress covered in a ratty blanket. The only human contact is the other forgotten children living out the same prison sentence in the cribs next to you and the nannies that may come to feed you, if there's time, and to change your diaper. You are  more of an annoyance, a job, work to be done than a human life worthy of time, attention, and love. You will never be seen as enough. You will always be seen as broken and useless. Some will even go so far as to refer to you (in front of you) as, "nothing  more than a houseplant."

This was the very real and gut kicking first six years of our AJ's "life." If you can even call it that, because none of what I just said sounds like life to me.

Now imagine having two total strangers waiting for you in a room you've never seen, (because "no one had ever taken an interest in your life...") who smell different, dress different, don't speak Russian, have funny accents, and being told by a roomful of other strangers that these people from a strange land are your Mama and Papa and you will go far away to live with them. I would probably burst into tears all while being paralyzed with an overabundance of fear overtaking me. That's how I would describe meeting AJ for the first time. He was six years old and weighed 24lbs. He was literally skin and bones. He was screaming and shaking and crying and so incredibly afraid of everything going on around him. How could he not be? Building trust with this little wounded heart was going to take a lot of patience and time.

Fast forward to present day.

We've been home with our beautiful boy for just over six years. He will be a teenager in August. WHHHHAAAAAAA?????? No. No thanks. It's happening anyway, deal with it, Mom.

He has a smile brighter than 10,000 noonday suns. His laughter will captivate a room and bring you to your knees in an instant. He is wicked smart, but his body and his tongue won't allow him to communicate all he feels, sees, thinks, wants, needs, etc...

AJ was diagnosed with Autism a few years ago. There were so many red flags and signs. We tried therapy after therapy, diet changes, different doctors and therapists, read approximately one trillion articles and other mom blog anecdotes of what helped their child live their fullest life.

Despite everything we have tried, AJ continues to struggle deeply in trusting me (the only Mom he has every known, but can you blame him? Every other woman in his life has only touched him with angry hurried hands, called him names, or ignored him altogether. If you've ever had someone hit you in anger or ignore you, you know these tactics are the cruelest of cruel and leave long lasting scars.) He clings to schedule and routine as if his life depends on it. Small unexpected changes in his day can rock his world, sometimes to the point of pure rage. I have been hit, kicked, bitten, had my hair pulled out, pinched, and punched by this boy who has so much going on in his brain, so much to say and no words or way to say it other than getting physically angry or completely melting down into an inconsolable heap or raw gaping wounds and wild emotions.

He sleeps in an enclosed bed tent. For his own safety, a dark quiet space for him to just be. A place where he can't hurt himself or anyone else, where he can stim or self soothe when he's beyond the point of us being able to be a safe place and a soft landing. Sometimes he needs this space because we went to Wal Mart. Sometimes it's because the batteries have run out of a favorite toy, that he needs the repetitive flashing lights and rhythmic melody to play over and over again, right next to his face. Sometimes he needs this space because having someone over to visit is just too overwhelming. Sometimes it's because I hung a new photo on the wall or moved a piece of furniture to a different area. When AJ reaches his melting point, there's little to nothing we can do to help him, except place him gently in the sanctuary of his bed tent and walk away. What a helpless feeling for this mama heart.

Enter Retrieving Freedom, Inc...

Filling out the application to see if AJ would qualify for a service dog was done really as a last resort. I was out of ideas. I was out of any more plans to try. I thought, the worst that can happen is they say no, right? But what if they said yes? What if AJ was able to form a tight bond with his very own service dog? What if a service dog could be a place of solace and rest, safety, security, and consistency that I couldn't give him? What if we could attend places and events out of the ordinary, off schedule, in our community and not have to leave 10 minutes in because a sensory melt down is about to take over our world? What if a service dog helped AJ out of his shell? What if a service dog could take the place of the dark enclosed bed tent? What if, what if, what if...?

But instead of the no, we got a yes. We got a let's try and see what happens. AJ and I have been attending training sessions together on site at the Waverly, Iowa RFI and already seeing some amazing responses and communication happening between AJ and his possible service dog match.

We continue to see only positives and AJ knows and lets me know how excited he is when we are going to RFI to work. I can say a dog's name and this child beams with pure joy and giggles uncontrollably.

Whew, I know that was long! Did you make it through all of that? If you're still with me, which I dearly hope you are, would you please consider donating to AJ's fundraising for Retrieving Freedom, Inc.? We would be forever grateful and humbled by your generosity and care in making our son's life better and brighter.



  • Joanna Meyeraan | Jun 16th 2018 @ 1:21 AM

    I had no idea your story .... I am so moved by your willingness to take on this beautiful young boy without hesitation. He deserves the world and such loving home and stability... thank you for being so gracious and and such an amazing family. This makes me so proud to know this in the type of person you have grown to be. And way great they said yes to your family for a service dog...very cool. I love hearing about such amazing companies like this. What a wonderful story ...thank you for sharing

  • Deanna Chambers | Aug 15th 2020 @ 8:18 AM

    Well I must say I cried through your entire story, sad tears and happy tears. You and your husband are simply amazing loving people... bless you for taking on this Incredible child for your own and giving him a wonderful home. It’s takes a VERY special person to do what you are doing . I have recently applied to be volunteer in our Missouri location and I certainly hope they pick me !!! It would be so rewarding and I love giving back in any way that I can to help others less fortunate. The look

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