Jami Leeth scoops up ice cream for her kids Katie, left, and Trapper, as husband Rob observes. The Leeths are raising money for a service dog for Trapper, an autistic child who is not afraid of anything. Andrew Cremata

Family hopes to raise money for service dog

When their son Trapper was only two years old, Rob and Jami Leeth began to notice some unusual behavior. Trapper was not talking or exhibiting normal eye contact for a boy his age. He was also prone to repetitive hand movements, walking on his toes, and liked to climb anything and everything.
In April 2007, at 29 months, Trapper was diagnosed with autism.
Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) of the brain that affects one in 150 children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. While children with autism appear normal, they engage in puzzling behaviors quite different from other children. While there is no cure for autism, various therapies including those of a dietary, medicinal, and educational nature have proved effective for some children.
Rob and Jami began to implement some of the therapies with Trapper after his diagnosis, but the unavailability of specialists in Skagway makes it difficult for Trapper to receive some of the care they would like him to have.
Trapper may soon be able to receive some of the needed care, and it walks on four legs.
Last summer, Jami was in her yard with Trapper when she turned away for only a moment. When she turned back Trapper was gone. He had managed to climb over their wood fence and get two blocks away before his frantic mother was able to locate him. On other occasions, Trapper will disappear only to be found hiding under his bed or in another enclosed space.
“He’s an escape artist,” said Jami. “He has no fear of anything.”
This behavior is normal for children with autism, and their unresponsiveness makes it difficult to keep track of their every movement. Jami began looking for answers to combat Trapper’s elusive nature via the internet and found a non-profit organization called 4 Paws for Ability which trains service dogs specifically for children with autism.
The dogs are also trained specifically for needs of individual children. For Trapper, the dog would be trained for tethering by leash to the young boy, and could also be used for search and rescue if Trapper were to wander off. The dog can even provide relief to Trapper by applying pressure via its paw or resting its head in his lap when he becomes agitated, another common symptom of severe PDD.
The cost for the animal is $13,000, made in the form of a donation to the organization, and the Leeths estimate their travel expenses for training in Ohio at $7,000. The Leeth family was accepted by 4 Paws for Ability to receive a working dog for Trapper on Oct. 27, making Trapper only the second child in Alaska to qualify.
The following day, the family traveled to northern California to spend Thanksgiving with their family. While traveling home one evening, Jami was riding in the passenger seat of the car with members of her family when one of the front tires blew out. The vehicle rolled twice before coming to a stop. Both Trapper and the Leeth’s daughter, Katie, were in the back seat, but fortunately were uninjured.
Jami was not so lucky, and had to be airlifted from the scene. The accident left her with three compression fractures in both her back and neck, a concussion, and an eight-inch contusion on her head.
Jami had to stay in her mother’s care encased in a body brace while she recovered enough to be mobile once again. She still sports a neck brace and endures the ongoing pain of breaking one’s neck and back. Even though she was able to come home a month earlier than expected, Jami said the down time made it extremely difficult to do any fundraising for the working dog.
She also missed her son.
“It’s hard to imagine Trapper with anyone else,” she said.
With Rob working full time as a practitioner at the Dahl Memorial Clinic, and a hobbled Jami taking care of her two kids at home while still undergoing physical therapy, the odds of ever getting the money together for the dog seemed bleak.
Enter Skagway.

Jani Leeth accepts a check for $1,000 from Fire Chief Mark Kirko at the recent SFVD awards banquet. JB

Many levels of fundraising for the Leeth family are currently underway, spearheaded by a host of Skagway locals. Donation cans have started to pop up at various local businesses, and a silent auction is planned for the first week in March. The youth group of the Life Link Fellowship is planning a spaghetti dinner to coordinate with the auction.
An account is being set up at Wells Fargo for those wishing to donate, and Jami has built a website, the address of which is: The police department is also hoping to hold what Police Chief Ray Leggett calls a “Tuff n’ Stuff,” where locals can issue a bond for a fellow Skagwegian at a nominal fee. The “criminal” is then “held” at the police station until they can post a bond, by calling friends to help them out of their faux-incarceration.
At the Skagway Fire Dept. awards banquet on Feb. 9, the department made a donation of $1,000 to the Leeth family and auctioned off some prime rib (see adjacent story).
Once all the money is raised, nine months will pass before Trapper can receive his two weeks of training with the dog. Families who have utilized a working dog for children with autism rave about both the therapeutic effects and the level of safety the animal affords.
Those seeking to make a donation should be aware that checks must be made to 4 Paws for Ability in Trapper’s name.