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Local artist hopes to repay service dog organization

By Beth Knoll The Record Herald


WAYNESBORO - Susan Bingaman is using her paintbrush to thank the organization that brought her a dear helper and friend.

Bingaman, a quadriplegic with limited arm movement for the past 30 years, has extra help with daily tasks in the form of Reuben, a golden Labrador retriever trained as a service dog by the New Life Assistance Dogs program of United Disabilities Services in Lancaster.

To benefit the program, Bingaman, an accomplished artist, is selling sets of greeting cards printed from oil paintings she made of Reuben's work and home life.

“I'm basically doing these cards for (UDS) because I see how much Reuben does for me, and I really appreciate them training this dog,” she said. “I am so pleased with how much he does for me. I want someone else to be able to have that opportunity.”

Reuben performs a myriad of daily tasks for Bingaman.

“Everything I drop, he'll pick up for me,” she said. “If I need the phone, he can get the phone for me, turn on and off lights, open and shut doors. If I need water, he'll go in the refrigerator and get me water.

“Lots of times I'll kick my foot off. He'll pick my foot up and put it back on the foot of my chair,” she continued. “If I have a jacket on, he'll pull the jacket off for me if I get too hot. It's nice because lots of times I'm here by myself - if I dropped something, it stayed there until somebody came. Now, if I'm painting and have a couple brushes going and I knock one off, he'll pick it up right away.”

Her story



Bingaman, 47, was born and raised near Chambersburg on a farm not far from the Rock Hill Road home she now shares with her niece, Cristy Pugh, a teacher at Fairview Elementary School.

On a wintry day in December 1976, when Bingaman was nearly 17 years old, a snowmobile crash she described as “ just a very freak accident” crushed her fifth and sixth spinal vertebrae, leaving her paralyzed below the waist and with very limited movement in her arms and torso. She has been in a wheelchair ever since.

She finds the most strength in her personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

“That's the only way I get through life,” she said. “He makes every day a joy, even when you're down.”

A typical day

A typical weekday in Bingaman's life includes two hours of exercise with a special bicycle and weights in the morning and an afternoon of painting. She also enjoys reading, playing with her three cats and three dogs, and spending time with her family.

A second niece, a sister, a female helper and a neighbor all take time to help Bingaman regularly, but none of them could replace the constant assistance she had from her mother.

Bingaman lived with her parents, Daniel “Junior” and Betty Bingaman, until their deaths several years ago - her mother in 1999 and her father in 2003. Just before her father's death, she discovered the New Life Assistance Dogs program online and was eventually matched with Reuben. She's had the dog for the past four years.

“My mom was the one who always took care of me,” Bingaman said. “I was thinking about it before, but after (her death) I was seriously thinking about applying for a service dog. Luckily, my dad got to meet Reuben before he died.”

Training for life

United Disabilities Services gives its New Life Assistance dogs basic training at its facilities after 18 months of puppy training in volunteer homes. After a dog has been matched with an owner, the dog is trained at the owner's home for a month to adapt to individual needs and the home environment.

Training happens first by day only, and eventually the dog can stay overnight at its owner's home.

Bingaman said Reuben has no trouble remembering he's working at home, but he has a red work vest he wears in public to help him focus on his task - to ignore all other normal canine stimuli and assist her. He also has a lead across his nose to help Bingaman gently keep him in check.

“The best compliment I get when we go out to dinner or someplace is, ‘I didn't even know he was there,'” she said.

The cost to train a dog through the program was approximately $5,000 out of pocket for Bingaman but can cost as much as $20,000, depending on the recipient's insurance coverage. Reuben is paid for, but Bingaman wants to help others who could benefit from having a service dog.

The beauty of life

“I always drew - horses or some kind of animal,” Bingaman said. “After I got hurt, my sister got me an acrylic set, and somehow (local artist) Goldie Reichard saw this, and my mom and dad were at a sale. She came to them and asked if I'd be willing to take lessons, and that's how we got started. She became my second grandmother, really.”

Bingaman quickly moved from acrylic to oils because the oils give her the time to blend and layer colors and work slowly to craft a piece of art before it dries. She enjoys working with watercolors as well but said she loves the flexibility of oils.

She took photos of Reuben at work and around her home - giving her his leash, lying down to rest, tugging open her outside basement door, bringing her the cordless phone, fetching a water bottle from the fridge, and relaxing with her other two dogs, Cricket and Spunky. She then made six 5-by-7-inch oil paintings from those photos, took the photos to J&M Printing in Waynesboro to be professionally scanned, and had greeting cards printed.

The cards come in a set of six and are available through United Disabilities Services for $20 a set. To order, call UDS at (800) 995-9581.

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