'Puppy whisperer' rejects obstacles others see for her

Ledyard High School senior Savannah Simon works Friday with Lucky, a therapy dog in training.
Ledyard High School senior Savannah Simon works Friday with Lucky, a therapy dog in training. Tim Cook/The Day

Ledyard - Savannah Simon can run faster than her sister, enjoy a heaping plate of the freshest seafood and hear the voices of her friends and family.

Not bad, considering she wasn't expected to live.

Her mother was told that Simon would never walk, see, hear or eat on her own, but she can do all of that. And when she does other things no one thought she could, she excels.

Born with Treacher-Collins syndrome, Simon, 19, had cranio-facial deformities - no ears or cheekbones, and with nasal passages that were closed off, necessitating a tube to help her breathe.

Simon has had 69 medically necessary and cosmetic surgeries. When she was 13, she told her mother that she had had enough; she had come to terms with her physical features never quite being what she wanted.

"When younger kids approach me and ask me why I look the way I do, I tell them I didn't eat my vegetables," Simon said.

She is perfectly fine the way she is, her mother, Shannon Taber, said recently.

"They put a lot of limits on her. Whatever obstacle has been put in front of her has been surpassed," Taber said.

After she was born, Simon's medical needs kept her at the hospital for 6 months before she was allowed to come home. Taber, a medic in the Air Force, said she had the medical training she needed for her daughter to be able to live at home.

"I thought, 'At least if I take her home, she'll know how much we love her,'" Taber said. "If we had given up, we would have lost out on Savannah. She's taught me so much about integrity and character. She knows everyone in this family would fight for her."

Because her nasal passages aren't open, Simon has no sense of smell but does have a slight sense of taste. Cheese, ice cream, seafood and "really spicy" foods register on her taste buds, and she holds a special place in her heart for Oreos.

"I'm just an overall food fan," Simon said.

She weighs about 78 pounds. She volunteers at a summer camp for visually impaired youth. Though those with Treacher-Collins face physical limitations, they typically function normally otherwise and are of normal intelligence.

Nestled inside Simon's childlike frame is a personality that has gone beyond life's challenges and into the hearts of others, especially those with four legs, tails and flailing tongues.

The Ledyard High senior trains puppies and young dogs for the North Star Foundation. The dogs she trains ultimately are placed with children who have autism or are coping with a loss or serious illness.

Recently, she helped train Lucky, a golden retriever who is just shy of 2 years old. This summer, Lucky is scheduled to go to Okinawa, Japan, for three years with his owner, Dr. Alvi Azad, a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Azad will use Lucky to help his patients there.

"I've never met anyone that I would have called the puppy whisperer, but that's Savannah. She makes these puppies melt," North Star owner Patty Gross said. "She brings them further than we can, and usually, me and my kids are the best."

Nine dogs have made their way through the training program with Simon.

"She's a resource you spread like butter," Gross said. "It wouldn't be fair for just one puppy to spend time with her, so I keep sending them."

Simon said she plans to attend Three Rivers Community College, begin in general studies and eventually move to business courses, as she plans to open her own dog-training business.

Last week, Simon sat on the floor of her grandmother's living room, bracing for Lucky to hurl himself into her lap. Weighing more than she does, Lucky stuffed himself between her crossed legs. His weight forced her to uncross them, lowering him to the floor. His tongue hanging out of his mouth, he looked at Simon, then flipped over - he wanted a tummy rub.

"He just lives and breathes for Savannah," Laurel Carmack, Simon's grandmother, said. "Just look at that. It's pathetic how spoiled he is."

Simon can't have a dog of her own without forfeiting the ability to train North Star dogs, so for now, she is going without.

But Taber is looking for a dog for her daughter, who, when she moves into her own place, will need a dog specifically trained to alert her to noises and abnormal smells. Simon cannot hear without hearing aides.

"I wanted her to know that she could live alone and not be our companion for the rest of her life," Taber said. "I had no idea that she would end up training dogs that do exactly that for other children."

Simon keeps in touch with the owners of the dogs she's trained, remembers all their names and each of their personalities. Her cellphone is full their pictures.

"When they have to go away, they know they're loved," Simon said. "They have their own job to do, their own person to take care of, and I'm just glad I could help."

j.hanckel@theday.com

Ledyard High School senior Savannah Simon works with Lucky, a therapy dog in training Friday.
Ledyard High School senior Savannah Simon works with Lucky, a therapy dog in training Friday. Tim Cook/The Day
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