Life off the leash: Future dog park commemorates deceased student

Andrew Whitaker/Assistant Photo Editor Dog owners Lynn Simons and John Scalise play in the snow with their pets on wednesday, March 19 at Mission Creek Park, where a dog park is planning to open.

Before Hannah Simons-Scalise died in 2011 after suffering from Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, the Mount Pleasant sophomore had one last gift for her favorite furry friends.

As a dog lover her whole life, Simons-Scalise asked her parents to use the money intended for her burial to instead create a place where man's best friend could roam free.

“She said to me in the car ‘How much do funerals cost?'” said Hannah's mother Lynn Simons. “It’s not something you would imagine a kid would say. (So after) four more years of her life where she worked at living as best she could, we still remember that conversation.”

The Friends of the Dog Park nonprofit formed in November of 2012, and Simons-Scalise's last wishes started to become reality.

Fighting until the end

Always an active girl, Hannah was very involved in her high school cross-country team. Even after she was diagnosed in March of her freshman year, she remained an active member attending practices and meets whenever her health allowed her.

“The first reaction was ‘I’m not going to quit school,’” Hannah's father, John Scalise, said. “It wasn’t ‘oh, I’m sick’ or ‘oh, I’ve got this giant tumor,’ it was ‘I can’t go to school, that’s horrible.’ That was a hard hurdle to get over.”

When her compromised immune system prevented her from being in school around other students, Hannah was still allowed to attend after-school meets to cheer on her teammates per an agreement she made with the school.

Throughout the next few years of her life, Hannah experienced a relapse after her initial treatment.

However, she did not let her illness keep her from experiencing all the aspects of life she felt were important. Even with a family living in town, Hannah moved into the residence halls her freshman year at Central Michigan University, and then into an apartment with her dog, Sophie, the following year.

When her illness called her away from school, Hannah maintained her independence and rode her bike to receive chemotherapy treatments.

“We tried to pay her to quit work,” Simons said. “How many parents say ‘we’ll pay you if you stop working?'”

By the end of a shift, Hannah would not have the energy to get home on her own, even after Simons was able to convince her to keep a car on campus for transportation.

“She would get finished and we’d have to go get her because she couldn’t get to her car,” Scalise said. “That was the way she wanted to live her life.”

A meaning emerges

After her initial diagnosis, Hannah underwent her first year of chemo treatments every three weeks, followed by a massive surgery that removed three ribs, part of her lung and part of the lining of her heart. Even with such extensive measure, Hannah’s condition did not improve.

Hannah asked her parents not to spend their money on a funeral for her, which she saw as a waste.

Instead, she asked them to put whatever funds they had set aside for her toward finding and cultivating a place where people could run with their dogs.

Today, the three-acre site at Mission Creek Park in Mount Pleasant can be described as rough and muddy with a combination of snow, dirt and rain water.

There are prickly shrubs spotting the terrain and no fence or structure on the property. Yet Simons and Scalise have a vision of what their daughter’s park will look like, and they have not stopped working to make sure it epitomizes the things she would have wanted for herself and Sophie, who still lives with them today.

With help from the board of Friends of the Dog Park and several journalism classes at Central Michigan University, the park is inching closer to construction every day. The Friends of the Dog Park has an agreement with the City of Mount Pleasant and the Union Township to raise $39,188, which the other two entities will match before construction begins.

Simons said they have reached 86 percent of their monetary goal, having just received a $10,000 competitive grant from the Mount Pleasant Area Community Foundation.

“We are really hoping it will be done by fall,” Simons said. “We have six more fundraisers in the next month, so we think we are going to make it.”

CMU students in four of professor Tracy Burton’s journalism classes have helped edge closer to the goal. They will be promoting all but two of the final fundraisers to gain real-world experience in addition to their classroom work with public relations.

Board member Ken Hofmeister met Burton at an earlier fundraiser, and the two agreed that the Friends of the Dog Park would be an ideal organization for the students to work with.

“This started at our very first fundraiser,” Hofmeister said. “It’s a very realized opportunity for the students to put some of their teaching and training to practice.”

As Friends of the Dog Park continues to work toward its goal, the organization is hosting its next fundraiser on Wednesday at The Pixie in Mount Pleasant.

Both Simons and Scalise are thrilled at the student involvement with the future dog park. Simons, who received her doctorate from CMU, is glad the school’s involvement is growing from what began with things like coordination with Relay For Life on Hannah’s behalf.

“It sort of feels like a really good karma coming full circle to have CMU students involved,” Simons said. “I think that would have made Hannah so happy.”


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