Program trains dogs to help those with disabilities and illness
WAXHAW, N.C.—A love of animals helped Charlie Petrizzo make it through some of the toughest days of his life.
After he was seriously injured in two accidents as a child, the New Jersey native said working with horses and dogs helped revive his spirit and interest him in life again.
Now, Petrizzo is dedicated to raising dogs that will help others have better lives.
His organization, Project 2 Heal (www.project2heal.org), matches Labrador retriever puppies with children who have special needs. Petrizzo chose to work with Labs because their gentle, loving nature, intelligence and problem-solving skills make them ideal to work with children.
The project’s slogan is “Heal the world … one puppy at a time.”
Petrizzo was motivated by his Catholic faith and the fact that he has survived two brushes with death.
As a child, he was hit by a car and suffered massive brain injuries. Doctors said he might never walk again.
His parents bought him a puppy that quickly became his best friend, and he eventually recovered.
Then, at age 16, while working at a summer job, Petrizzo’s extension ladder hit an electrical wire and he suffered third degree burns over much of his body. During his long recovery, he started riding and working with horses.
“Animals were very therapeutic to me, and the dogs and the horses played a big role in my life,” he said.
The memory of his animal companions’ role in his healing led him to start Project 2 Heal.
His goal was to breed and train dogs that could help children with a wide variety of special needs.
He cites studies that show companion dogs help calm and relieve stress in autistic children.
Other service dogs trained through Project 2 Heal can help with tasks, such as opening doors and taking clothes out.
Petrizzo’s puppies have worked with children with a wide variety of disabilities and illnesses, including autism, Down syndrome and cancer.
Some of the dogs are trained at Petrizzo’s three-acre facility in Waxhaw, while inmates at prison programs such as the Indiana Canine Assistance Network train others.
Labs are currently Project 2 Heal’s dog of choice, but Petrizzo plans to start incorporating Cavalier King Charles spaniels into the program because some children need a smaller companion dog.
Petrizzo and his family live in Waxhaw, N.C., near the South Carolina border and are members of St. Catherine Church in Lancaster.
“I’m a daily Mass-goer, and that’s what really has helped me to make the decision about what to do with the ministry and everything else,” Petrizzo said.
He has always been a Catholic, but said he didn’t realize the value of daily Mass attendance until a business trip to Texas in 2004. He attended Mass each day at a church there and said it changed his entire approach to his faith.
“I really believe God sent me to Texas to be near that church and kindle the flame, and eventually after that I knew I wanted to do something with dogs and to help kids,” he said.
Petrizzo’s life and work with Project 2 Heal is the subject of a movie, “Charlie’s Scars,” produced by Episode XI Studios, an independent film production company based in Charlotte, and set for release in mid-November.
His wife Sandy and two adopted daughters, Melissa, 16, and Kristen, 14, help on a daily basis at Project 2 Heal.
Petrizzo hopes the film will teach more people about the possibility of healing even after difficult times, and might encourage people to reach out to others.
“Project 2 Heal has changed our whole family’s life,” he said. “Catholic social doctrine teaches that private property is supposed to be used for public good, and this ministry allows us to do that. Our property is open to the people who need these dogs. It is our ministry, or rather God’s ministry given to us to do his will, to be more specific. It’s what is first in our life, central in our life, and what we live to do.”