Feature story: A good life

Charlotte Rayfield and Dozer, her right-hand man

Dozer, a black Labrador retriever belonging to Portola Valley resident Charlotte Rayfield, doesn't like anyone putting a hat on his head. He does, however, wear two metaphorical hats on most days: pet and service dog -- a hat he'll be wearing a lot more when Charlotte goes to college.

Charlotte, who is 17 and a senior at Midpeninsula High School, was born with cerebral palsy. "I drop things and I'm very clumsy," she said brightly in an interview at her home in central Portola Valley.

She has no use of her legs, limited use of her right hand, and gets about in an electric wheelchair, but her clumsiness comes to her naturally, she said.

Her smart phone, for example, frequently ends up on the floor. It has no handles, it's thin, it lies flat and it's a rectangle. It would be nice to have hands, but Dozer doesn't, so he will quietly push the thing around with his nose and paw for 10 to 15 seconds until he can get his teeth around it, then gently pick it up and hand it off to her.

He will also pick up pencils, headsets, socks and shoes, Charlotte said. "If you need him to do something, he's very happy to do it. He loves it. You don't have to ask."

Old school

Charlotte likes to read, and not from her smart phone. "Ninety-nine point nine nine percent of the time, I have a book with me, wherever I am," she said, coming as she does from a family that values books. "Growing up in an environment that appreciates these things, it became part of me," she said. "I credit most of it to my grandfathers. They're the ones who kick-started that."

It would not be surprising for a person with physical limitations to find digital books a godsend, but not Charlotte. "I like the actual book," she said. "I like the way it feels."

"I have a great bookshelf," she added.

"Seriously," her 13-year-old brother Sam said.

"She's old school," her mother Gina Rayfield said.

She is old school. She likes bookstores, particularly Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. "Kepler's is amazing. It's so friendly. It's independent. It's always well stocked," she said. "The people that work there are so nice and they always help you."

The many spacious bookshelves in her bedroom are populated with a lot of fantasy and science fiction, including works by George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson, but Jane Austen is also there, and Charlotte is quick to point out how much she likes works by the Bronte sisters, particularly "Jane Eyre," by Charlotte Bronte.

Dozer is kind of thrown by actual books, picking them up, that is. "We are currently working on the books," Ms. Rayfield said in an email. "Most are so cumbersome and heavy, mostly hard bound. So this is a goal we have set for Dozer. The hope is that Dozer will allow Charlotte to be completely independent one day. This is our hope for her."

Charlotte is also a downhill skier. Her "sit-ski" is tethered to her dad or an instructor skiing behind her, and she's reached at least 55 mph, she said. She's also skied in a half pipe. When she falls, it's a learning moment. "Now I know what we just did is not going to work," she recalls thinking.

And she plays a keyboard, mostly with her left hand but she's beginning to incorporate her right. She likes the bands All Time Low, 21 Pilots and Halsey, as well as the Beatles and jazz vocalist and musician Bill Withers. Her favorite movies are "Silence of the Lambs" and "Leon: The Professional," a French thriller about a girl learning the trade of a hit-man.

For fuel, she likes macaroni and cheese and she can make quesadillas, but she doesn't cook, leaving that to her brother Sam. "I'm the one who makes sure he doesn't burn himself," she said. "We're a pretty good team."

When she's on her own, Charlotte said she'll probably eat Ramen, popcorn and toast "until I can find a friend who knows how to cook."

When she first got to Midpeninsula High, Charlotte said, she found the desks fitted with a suspended shelf underneath that blocked her knees when sitting in her wheelchair. What to do? The school's handyman was off, but a large and powerful student colleague, with the blessing of the staff, fixed the problem.

He turned the desk over and kicked at the shelf until it loosened, took out the screws, and removed it, all without saying a word, Charlotte said, laughing. He then went off to repeat this adjustment so she'd have a desk in every classroom, she said.

A challenge or two

People not in wheelchairs have perceptions, conscious or not, about people in wheelchairs. "Sometimes I think that people won't like me because I'm in a wheelchair, or that people might be afraid to have a relationship with me because I'm in a wheelchair," Charlotte said. "People often think that I have a cognitive issue."

"I'm perfectly happy with the way I am," she said. "I like the way I am." There are people she would not have met and experiences she would not have had had she not been in a wheelchair, she added.

For example, when she visited the Coliseum in Rome, she and her father could not find an elevator, so he put her over one shoulder and carried her manual wheelchair up the stairs. When they got to the top, they noticed an elevator. "We were like, 'Come on!'"

When she visited the White House, accessibility was such that she was routed through the kitchen -- and got to see a portion of ceiling left over from 1814, when the British burned the building.

At work and play

Putting Dozer in a definitive frame of mind to work is done by buckling him up in his service-dog vest. It's symbolic to him and a key part of his training at Companion Canines for Independence in Santa Rosa, Ms. Rayfield said. One of his vests includes a panel on top advising passersby that he is working and to please not pet him, but they do anyway, most annoyingly right on the spot on the vest that says not to pet him, Ms. Rayfield said.

Dozer will also pick things up for Charlotte when he's not wearing his vest but, and this is unusual for a working dog, he has no problem being a pet and passing as an ordinary well-behaved, good-natured dog. Without his vest on, he'll work the room looking for attention from anyone who will give it, including a reporter.

You'd think that a 3-year-old black Labrador, big and muscular and a dog of few words, would have the name Dozer because he's intimidating, in the way a bulldozer is intimidating. But you'd be wrong. His name is a comment on his low-key approach to life, Charlotte said.

"He's very sleepy," she said. "He's (also) the perfect amount of goofball and service dog. He's made my being clumsy so much less worrying. He's also become my friend."

They've been together since mid-2014. Before his arrival, her brother Sam picked up the things she dropped. "I love this dog. I love him," he said, with just the right timing. "Not for just picking up," he added quickly, "but just to play with. He's so much fun. He really likes to just have fun and play around."

Until she's an adult, Charlotte is not supposed to use a service dog in public on her own. She is planning a career as an elementary school teacher, preferably first-grade, and Dozer will accompany her when she goes off to college -- probably to a local community college, she said.

"I'm going to get him his own graduation gown and it's going to be awesome," she said. Given his views on hats and presumably on clothing in general, Dozer may have a different take on that.

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