With hardly a glance from anyone, Christopher James walks into class with Hamilton and starts his schoolwork at Hahnville High School.
It’s the usual day for the student and his service dog, a golden retriever now laying on a mat nearby. The dog rests quietly, but a closer looks reveals he is keeping a watchful eye on James in case he shows signs of a seizure and needs help.
Their relationship works and it has helped James live with the kind of independence that contributed to him being named as the school’s Cox Inspirational Hero for 2015-16.James’ teacher, Jennifer Hebert, said the 20-year-old earned the recognition for volunteerism and community service.By diligently completing coursework, he also earned Beta Club membership under the newly created Career Pathways Diploma program, Hebert said.
“Christopher, along with his service dog, is a terrific ambassador for service dog programs,” she said. “I’m just really proud of Christopher. He’s gone over and above in overcoming his disabilities. He has a real positive outlook on life and he’s just a great kid to be around.”
Asked about being named a hero, James mused that had mixed feelings about it because he’s into movie super villains.Despite physical disabilities that include a seizure disorder and cognitive issues, James has proven to be a winner in every way. He is in the ROTC and Beta Club, as well as volunteers at Second Harvest Community Food Bank.
The two have even been featured in a United Way of St. Charles commercial.
On April 12, they were recognized among 104 student heroes who have led meaningful, productive lives while working to overcome adversities at the 24th Annual Cox Inspirational Heroes Program. James was among students nominated from each school from St. Charles, as well as Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Penny James, Christopher’s mother. “We love being here. We’ve love everything HHS does for Christopher.”
James’ nurse, Donna LeBlanc, who Penny calls “NuthaMother,” also praised James.
“He’s a good kid … hard working,” LeBlanc said. “This is my second year with him and it’s changed my life.”
HHS embraced both James and Hamilton, producing a public service announcement that airs at the beginning of each school year advising students not interact with Hamilton to ensure he remains focused on James who suffers from a seizure disorder. If he does, the service dog will start jumping and getting in his face to get his attention to get him to sit down instead of falling or get the attention of adults nearby to help.
James calls his furry buddy “my lifesaver” and hands the 4-year-old dog a small bone-shaped treat.
“He is very good in school,” Hebert said. “Whenever he goes in class with Christopher, he has a designated place and has a mat where he rests unless Christopher needs him.”James is responsible for Hamilton.
“Christopher is in charge of him,” Hebert said. “He’s really good with him and they make a great team.”
James also was described as a diligent child focused on his academics. His work in the new Career Pathways Diploma Program. James plans on going to college in two years, which should be right about the time that Nicholls State University will have the program in place.
But at this time, he’s learning customer service at Tiger Mart, HHS’s job training program.
Aided by Hamilton, he can maneuver despite physical disabilities that include wearing a brace on his arm and leg. The dog also helps balance him.
James became an “HHS Tiger” about two years ago, when his father, Donald, who works at Entergy, was transferred from Michigan to the area. Penny is a native of Thibodaux.
Although there were concerns about how a service dog would work out in the classroom, they quickly went away when they met him.
“He’s just one of the guys,” Hebert said. “For the most part, you don’t even know he’s there.”
When he’s wearing his service dog vest and ID card, Hamilton already knows he’s on the job. But he gets off time at home, too, and lots of dog treats.
“Hamilton goes to work everyday, working for 7-1/2 hours a day,” she said. “And then he gets to go home and be a dog.”And every day is another good day when he has helped James to achieve his dreams despite any challenge.
“He has blossomed into a gorgeous young man,” his mother said of him becoming more confident in his efforts. “St. Charles Parish is wonderful. Whatever he needs to learn, he gets it.”