After nine months of abstract planning and gathering donations, fifth-graders Cierra Thomas and Kaitlyn Crowe were able to witness the real benefits of their community service project.

The completion of the project granted Cierra and Kaitlyn their bronze awards, the highest possible honor for Girl Scout Juniors. It also gave U.S. Army veteran Paul DiPaolo and his service dog, Duce, a new harness, a flea and tick collar and premium dog food that lift almost a year’s worth of financial burden off the soldier’s back.

Cierra said she and Kaitlyn, who make up a two-person troop, were happy to be able to help a member of the community.

“We’re excited to be able to show people what we’ve done and tell people about this amazing foundation,” Cierra said. “(Top Dogg K9 Foundation) is a great foundation if you’re a veteran and you want to train your service dog.”

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DiPaolo is married with a son and is studying for a degree in cyber security at DeVry University. He thanked the girls for their months-long effort. He was grateful for the aid he received and for how it will help his family as he pursues his degree.

“I can’t thank you guys enough,” DiPaolo said. “I just want to put that out there, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you guys so much.”

What the Lilburn girls scouts were able to drum up in a matter of months was not mere pocket change. Cierra and Kaitlyn set out with a goal to raise $300 to support a veteran and their dog who were training with Top Dogg K9 Foundation in Stone Mountain. The total they finally accumulated was roughly four times that projected amount — $1,200.

“We come here (to Top Dogg K9 Foundation) for a lot of different events to get to know everyone,” Cierra said. “We’ve done a lot of fundraisers — we did a round robin at the tennis courts and a lot of stuff to get donations.”

Both Cierra and Kaitlyn have veterans in their family. When they were in the early process of brainstorming ideas for their Junior Girl Scout project, a cause that supported veterans seemed logical to them both.

They were connected to Top Dogg by the Lilburn Women’s Club, and Top Dogg co-founder Blake Rashad helped them connect with DiPaolo. Rashad is a veteran, having served in the U.S. Army as a dog trainer. He has been training dogs since the age of 12, and helps veterans train their new companions at Top Dogg.

DiPaolo joined the U.S. Army in 2010 and served for seven years. He was deployed in 2009 when he was injured jumping out of a helicopter during a training exercise. He said people he met through Wounded Warrior Project helped give him a sense of purpose and a reason to be excited about his future. He and his wife, April, moved to the Atlanta area with their son, A.J., when he decided to go to graduate school.

“It helps me financially and helps me with all of his nutrition, because he requires a lot of protein,” DiPaolo said.

DiPaolo’s foot injury gives him a risk of falling. He found out through a Wounded Warrior Project event he was a good candidate for a service dog and learned about Top Dogg K9 Foundation. He adopted Duce as a 10-week-old puppy in Oct. 2018 and they graduated obedience school on Nov. 8 this year.

Duce has learned to respond to physical and emotion cues from DiPaolo that signal he may be in distress or about to collapse. One of the items Cierra and Kaithlyn provided was a harness for Duce with a handle that can help DiPaolo stabilize himself. In some situations, Duce can help catch DiPaolo or help pick him up. DiPaolo and Duce are still practicing commands and responses after graduation.

“He’s also picked up on some of the anger cues, the PTSD cues and the anxiety cues that I have,” DiPaolo said. “It’s almost like he’s starting to pick up on my actions. The more that happens, he can emotionally support me in that sense.”

DiPaolo and Duce are together at almost all times. According to DiPaolo, it’s 99.9%.

Cierra and Kaitlyn both said scouting has taught them some traditional outdoors and survival skills, but their Junior service project called for mature communication skills and etiquette that show the two girls are wise beyond their years.

“We learned a lot of stuff that will help us in life once we get older,” Cierra said.