From the Dallas area to Shawnee and Macomb, friends and family are helping parents James and Tiffany Joseph raise $17,000 through various fundraisers so 4-year-old son, Preston, can have a service dog that will help him as he's nonverbal and on the autism spectrum.

According to Tiffany, for the first four months of his life, it was just her and Preston because James is a Marine and was deployed.

"Preston didn't develop his words like typical kids do, but he eventually just lost all of them and part of me thought it was because we were alone for so long," Tiffany said.

While the family now lives in Dallas where James is stationed with the military, the couple are originally from the Shawnee and Macomb areas and still have friends and relatives here.

At 2, words Preston had been saying were lost and he was completely nonverbal, she said.

"They sent us to speech therapy...and that's when they said they think he's autistic and I had no idea what that meant and the first thing that comes to my mind is the worst possible (situation)," Tiffany said.

After Preston was officially diagnosed, Tiffany said they gave him a speech device to help him communicate with others.

"It took a while...(but) he got it and he's thriving with it and then one day I saw service dogs at an event and Preston loved them and I feel like it's a life changing thing and it would help him so much," Tiffany said.

The mother of two said she began researching organizations that provide service dogs to children and after months of searching, she and James discovered the ideal organization with the perfect service dog for Preston because he needs one that his parents could work with and command.

"He can't (command the dog) because he doesn't understand. We finally found 4 Paws for Ability and we talked to them and they offered everything that we wanted," Tiffany said.

According to 4 Paws for Ability Development Director Kelly Camm, the non-profit is based in Ohio and specializes in training and placing service dogs with families all over the world.

"Our specialty is Autism Assistance Dogs that help locate a child should that child go missing and that's actually exactly what (Preston) is in need of," Camm said."I'd say about 75 percent of our applicants for Autism Assistance Dogs are runners and...this is their own personal search and rescue dog."

Tiffany said they applied for Preston's dog and they're currently at Stage Three, which means they're fundraising and need to raise $17,000 to cover the fee for the dog.

"Once you earn that fee they put you on the list to start class, which is where you go, you meet your service dog and they teach you how to use it," Tiffany said.

Camm said families are responsible for their travel expenses as they will take their classes in Ohio and learn how to command and use the dog.

"The family comes here for 12 days...During those 12 days they'll go to a public park for a few days and do track exercises and rescue exercises and they'll go to a mall and...they'll to they same thing," Camm said. "After the 12 days they'll graduate and go home."

Camm explained once the family takes their dog home then they are responsible for maintaining its yearly care and other expenses.

However, Camm said 4 Paws helps families with their online platform and finding different fundraisers to do.

Tiffany said the family began their fundraising with a Mighty Cause page which has raised quite a bit of money so far.

"People showed up for (Preston). I think at this point we have $7,090 raised on that and we started selling T-shirts and that one probably got around $700 raised," Tiffany said. "I think we're about $10,000 away."

Tiffany said in addition to the first two fundraisers, now she, her family and her friends are having a shoe drive through an organization called Funds 2 Orgs, which is recommended by 4 Paws.

"They give you a list of fundraisers that they like to suggest for us to use. We're doing the mini shoe drive where you have 60 days to collect as many shoes as you can...then once the 60 days are up they'll come and collect the shoes," Tiffany said. "They take them back and they weigh them and they pay you .40 cents per pound. The check goes straight to 4 Paws for Ability and it's credited to Preston's account because they're a non-profit working with non-profits."

Tiffany said their 60 days began Monday, Feb. 24 and will end Sunday, April 26.

The shoes are beneficial for Preston, but also people in other countries as Funds 2 Orgs donates them to countries with low economies.

"They repurpose the shoes...and there's so many places they send to and it creates jobs because they sell them. It's a win-win. We get money for Preston and people get a job and a paycheck for their family," she said

Tiffany said there are shoe drop offs in both the Dallas and the Shawnee area. While she runs it in Texas, her close friend Adrienne Quirk is running the drive in Shawnee.

Quirk said there are several places people can donate shoes and many people in both communities are eager to help.

"The shoe donations just need to be pairs of shoes that are gently worn, clean and still wearable. The heavier the better," Quirk said. "So throw those old work boots in there."

Quirk said the drop off locations include Shawnee Reflections Salon at 1935 N. Kickapoo, Berkshire-Hathaway at 3601 N. Harrison and Macomb Schools Service Club is also helping collect shoes as they have a school-wide goal to collect 500.

Quirk said the overall state goal for Oklahoma is around 2,000 pairs as a large portion of shoes means more money for Preston's service dog.

"Around 300 has been collected so far just in Oklahoma. There are a few donation drop off locations in Dallas. The Oklahoma deadline is April 19," Quirk said.

Like Tiffany, Quirk said she feels a service dog for Preston would make life so much easier for him and his family.

"A service dog would be life changing for Preston for many reasons such as he does not understand danger, so having a service dog would keep him safe by not allowing him in life threatening situations," Quirk said. "It would also allow him to have a companion that loves him."

Camm explained the dogs from 4 Paws can help children such as Preston with their safety, their social abilities and more.

"What the dogs can do for these children is help them to self regulate their behaviors and calm them so they don't do that fight or flight response," Camm said.

Camm said the dogs are taught behavioral interruption techniques to stop a child from having a tantrum that could normally last a few hours.

In addition, Camm said an Autism Assistance Dog can help a child socially by attracting positive attention from his or her peers.

"A lot of kids that see a child having a meltdown, they don't understand what's going on with that child...and sometimes they're less (likely) to make friends with that child," Camm said. "(However), they start to engage and look at the child not with a disability, but the cool kid with a dog."

Tiffany said she's excited for the day Preston receives his service dog because it will give him a permanent friend, it will protect him and it will help him be more independent.

"We want him to be able to live his life without us holding his hand all the time because as much as we want to protect him from the world we can't all the time," Tiffany said. "We think having a service dog would really help us and help him."

For more information on 4 Paws for Ability visit 4pawsforability.org, or to help the Joseph family, visit their Mighty Cause page at https://www.cincinnatigives.org/story/4pawsforpreston.