Jason Parker poses alongside his black lab Gunnar and the chair that Gunnar uses to get around. Similar chairs are sent to animals all across the country who are in need of one as part of Gunnar's Wheels Foundation.

Gunnar's Wheels gives back around the world

by Brian Sheridan, Editor

A hero comes in all forms. In Osseo, he’s a black labrador named Gunnar.

On Feb. 16, 2014, Gunnar was hit by a car in rural Strum and was paralyzed. His owner, Jason Parker, 42, elected to do surgery and quickly racked up hospital bills with no guarantee he would ever walk again.

Parker began researching canine mobility as it became clear Gunnar would not be able to use his back legs again. But due to the bills, he couldn’t afford a chair. Through the generosity of friends and the community, people pooled money together to buy Gunnar a chair.

“I was just blown away by people’s generosity,” Parker said. “I told my wife one of these days we’re going to pay it forward.”

Later, Parker was shared a story about a dog named Hope down at a Benevolent Animal Rescue Committee (BARC) shelter in Houston, Texas who was paralyzed and was going to be euthanized soon if she didn’t receive a chair.

After buying a chair from a company in Green bay and shipping it to Hope, Gunnar’s Wheels was created.

The non-profit foundation Gunnar’s Wheels was started by Parker as a way to deliver chairs to paralyzed dogs who need one but may be unable to afford one. So far, Gunnar’s Wheels has around 150 carts being sent around the word and has helped 162 animals.

The foundation works by contacting Gunnar’s Wheels through their Facebook page and requesting a cart for the dog. After getting the animal’s name, size, measurements and address, a cart designed for that size is sent out to them. After the cart is no longer needed, either through recovery or passing away, the cart is returned to the foundation and sent off to the next dog in need.

Gunnar’s Wheels is currently run by Parker, the vice president of the foundation, his wife Stephanie, his sister Jamie Campbell and 10-year-old Gunnar, who is the president and CEO.

The project was funded through the website GoFundMe when it started back in August as a way to purchase more carts. Gunnar’s Wheels initially raised around $11,000 but around January, Parker said they began running out of money. But then, Parker said GoFundMe contacted them out of nowhere.

“They said we love what you’re doing,” he said. “[They said] we sent out an email to a lot of our donors and we asked them which charity they would like us to focus on and they said Gunnar’s Wheels kept coming up.”

Parker then partnered with GoFundMe and worked with them to promote the foundation. On Tuesday, April 11, Gunnar’s Wheels was named GoFundMe’s April Hero and received national attention after being featured on Today.com.

As of Tuesday, April 18, Gunnar’s Wheels has raised over $81,000 on GoFundMe. All of the money will be going to purchasing more carts for animals, with no salaries or administrative fees involved. Parker said the money is meant to fund Gunnar’s Wheels for the next four years so he can hopefully purchase enough carts, which cost anywhere from $100 to $650, to the point where he’ll never need to buy another one.

By partnering with different chair manufacturers like Walkin’ Wheels, Canine Mobility and Best Friend Mobility, Parker is able to order and send chairs to anywhere in the country and even around the world. Gunnar’s Wheels has so far sent chairs to Canada as well as Scotland.

“A little piece of me hoped Gunnar’s Wheels would take off and I would never have to say no to an animal, and I haven’t yet,” Parker said.

Over the last few months, many pet owners have reached out to Gunnar’s Wheels with stories of their pets filled with heartbreak as well as resiliency. Parker hears stories from accidents to deformities but finds a way to get a chair for them all.

When he gets a chance, Parker said he wants to meet the animal so he can show the owner how the chair works. In one case, Parker went to meet golden retriever who was previously a therapy dog and had been paralyzed for the last six months without a cart. Parker took her on her first walk in half a year and afterwards, he said she lifted her paw, looking to shake his hand.

When fitting a Dachshund in Menomonie, he said the dog began licking his hand after putting them in the chair. And Hope, the first dog to receive a chair? She eventually recovered and Parker said she now “runs like the wind.”

“I’ve always said that every special needs animal has a story to tell and it's up to us to tell their story, and their stories are pretty remarkable,” he said.

In the area, Parker has a chair for a dog in Osseo, two in Eau Claire, one in Bloomer and a couple in La Crosse. He said he won’t get a chance to meet 99 percent of the animals he helps but remembers most of their names and shares their pictures on their Facebook page when they receive a chair.

From all the work the foundation has done to help other animals, Gunnar himself has even been nominated for an American Humane Hero Dog Award, the highest honor for a dog. Gunnar is running in the “emerging hero” category, a category for “ordinary” dogs who do extraordinary things, according to herodogawards.org.

There are 86 dogs in the category people can vote for, which runs until May 3. The top three dogs will move on to the second round of voting to be judged again. The winner will be flown to Hollywood for a red carpet event broadcasted live on the Hallmark channel.

“For him, I really hope he makes it,” Parker said. “Just for everything he’s been through and everything he’s taught us and I’d like to see him there just for the animals he’s helped.”

Parker said his main goal after Gunnar got hit was to raise awareness to special needs animals and to let people know spinal injuries are not the end. He said he’s achieved this goal and now it’s something nobody can take away from him.

Through all the recent attention, Parker said if even one person decides to be a special needs animal parent, then he has done his job, although it is not something to be taken lightly.

He said Gunnar is able to have a lot of mobility and can “swim like a fish” but only having the use of his front legs puts more pressure on the front joints and causes them to wear out faster. However, he said the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

When Gunnar passes, Parker said he’s thinking about adopting another special needs pet they helped through Gunnar’s Wheels. And long after Parker is gone, he said he’s hoping his kids will take on the project. He’s also looking at writing a book about his experience with Gunnar and the foundation as a way of inspiring more about his journey.

People can still donate to the cause at GoFundMe.com under the name “Gunnar’s Wheels.” They also have an account at Alliance Bank in Osseo under the same name for people looking to send checks directly.

After the fundraiser is over, they will have a Paypal link on their Facebook page to donate to Gunnar’s Wheels since it is funded solely through donations. Anyone looking for a cart or looking to donate one can send a message to Gunnar’s Wheels on Facebook.

“I want Gunnar’s legacy to live on,” Parker said. “He’s a magnificent animal and he’s changed me. What he showed me about compassion and caring and just love. It’s nothing I could have ever read about or learned while being preached at. I had to learn it myself with him.”

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