Like many kids, Eli Crayton got a dog for Christmas. But Eli is no ordinary kid, and he received no ordinary dog.
Born prematurely at 24 weeks, Crayton spent his first 110 days in the the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital in Greenville.
“We were told he wouldn’t survive,” said his father, James Crayton, an investigator in the Johnston County District Attorney’s Office. “He’s 9 now.”
Eli endured multiple surgeries when first in the hospital and has endured more over the years. He is nonverbal and autistic and has cerebral palsy. But he has a light, his father says, an ability to express himself, winning and charming hearts wherever he goes.
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“He’s the happiest kid you’ll ever meet,” Crayton said of his son. “I know I’m biased, but he changes lives everywhere he goes. He brings so much joy to everyone.”
Now that he’s 9, Eli is starting to develop his adolescent independence, chasing curiosities and investigating whatever catches his attention. He goes to therapy three times a week and is enrolled in special-needs classes. He communicates through an iPad app that allows him to form words and phrases. Crayton said Eli’s favorite things to do are take rides in elevators, watch the McDonald’s drive-thru and go through a car wash.
“He’s trying to bail out of that car as soon as possible when we get to the McDonald’s drive-thru,” Crayton said. “Who needs Disney World when you have the McDonald’s drive-thru.”
But with that excitement, Crayton said, Eli is more and more vulnerable to potential dangers, to possibly running into traffic if something catches his interest.
“He will occasionally walk out of the house and not tell anyone,” Crayton said.
That’s when the Craytons thought of a dog. Jimmy and Suzannah Crayton talked with other parents in a group for children with special needs and began to hear about service dogs for autistic kids.
“I had never heard about special-needs dogs,” Crayton said. “I knew of dogs for blind people and people with diabetes or suffer from seizures. I thought, what in the world can a service dog do for a child with autism?”
After some Internet research and some YouTube videos, the Craytons determined it was a path worth exploring. They found a trainer in Jacksonville, Fla., and started to talk about what Eli might gain from a service dog.
“A lot of autistic kids, when they have a breakdown, it may seem like minor things to us, but they are very orderly and very routine oriented, so when something falls out of sort, he can get very upset,” Crayton said. “The dog will help calm him and serve as a distraction. It will be there to console him.”
Eli, Crayton said, is eager to connect with an outside world that he might not understand and that might have trouble understanding him. The service dog, he said, can be that point of connection.
“It’s an attraction for other kids too,” Crayton said. “We’ll be in a pool or somewhere and he’ll walk over to a group of kids. He can’t say, ‘I want to play,’ so there’s a limit to what he can do. I’m excited about the thought of connecting over a dog.”
The Craytons learned quickly that service dogs are expensive. An estimate for the dog and training runs about $14,000, Crayton said, well above the average labradoodle. That’s when the Craytons realized they might need some help. Jimmy set up a GoFundMe page last Monday afternoon, asking for $9,000 and pledging to cover the rest. By Tuesday morning, the Craytons had already surpassed $9,000, and by Wednesday, more than 200 donors had fully funded the $14,000 needed for the dog. For a while Monday and Tuesday, Eli’s fundraising campaign was trending on GoFundMe’s page.
“It has been incredible,” Crayton said. “The story isn’t really about a dog. The story is what people can do when they come together. I certainly want people to know how appreciative we are. ... I can’t describe what this feels like. We have known that people love Eli. You can’t help but instantly fall in love with him.”
Crayton said a friend told him he was struggling to get in the Christmas spirit until he saw the reaction to the fundraiser. The friend said a mother he knew told him her daughter had asked for her Christmas gift to be auctioned off to help pay for Eli’s service dog.
Now that the money appears secured, Crayton said the Florida trainer is looking for the right dog. After that, it’s about a nine-month training process before the new dog is a full member of the family.