The story of Project 2 Heal shows the power of faith, mercy and redemption — and the importance of being instruments of conversion.
Founded by Charlie and Sandy Petrizzo in Waxhaw, N.C., this Catholic family apostolate has brought hope, healing and help for so many — from wounded warriors to those with autism and Down syndrome and even prisoners — all linked to the comfort offered by service dogs and the founders’ faith.
The story really started when Charlie Petrizzo almost died twice — first when he was 5.
When the car struck him as he went to retrieve a ball, he received massive brain trauma, endured intensive brain surgery and was comatose for a long time. The left side of his body was paralyzed.
“By the grace of God, I lived,” Petrizzo said. “Someone brought a novena to St. Jude, and my mom prayed the prayer on it. Two or three minutes after she said that prayer, a nurse came to the stairwell and said that I was speaking.”
“From that moment on, my mom had a lifelong devotion to St. Jude,” he added.
Slowly and surely, Charlie recovered — but he never regained coordination on his left side.
When he was 16, and on his first summer job, he was helping lift a 40-foot aluminum ladder near a telephone pole that no one knew was carrying electrical wires. The ladder hit the wires, and the 36,000 volts of electricity surging through his body left Charlie with third-degree burns over 70% of his body.
Because of the severe burns, to this day, he still suffers back problems and pain.
“I was very self-conscious and was embarrassed about what I looked like, and I withdrew socially,” he explained.
Because he loved dogs, his parents got him one to help him cope.
“The dog became my best friend,” he said. “He was always there, no matter what I looked like. If I went out to sit on the front steps, I took him with me as a comfort. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized this dog was a healing influence on me.”
Despite the comfort he received from the dog, he was angry with God, thinking, “Why did you let this happen to me, God? I always looked at the cup as half-empty.”
He did attend church, but as he put it, “I didn’t know much about my faith and so didn’t care much about it.”
Fortunately, his wife was a faithful practicing Catholic.
But the self-pity and questions continued. Trying to compensate, he became a success in a Fortune 500 company, where he “made gobs of money and bought all the best toys, clothes and vacations,” he said. But the seven-figure salary did not bring happiness.
Then, the combination of being unable to have biological children (the Petrizzos adopted two girls), losing parents and the continuing burden of his injuries sent Charlie into a downward spiral of depression.
He took a leave of absence from his job, never to return.
“We needed to find a purpose in life, and Sandy was trying to bring me to the faith,” he said.
Providentially, someone gave him an audio tape by theologian Scott Hahn. Soon, he started praying the Rosary.
At the same time, because he and Sandy loved dogs, they decided to look into a group that trained dogs.
While training with the group to possibly own their own franchise, Charlie stayed in a motel next to a Catholic church.
“I got up early and didn’t know what to do, so I went to a weekday Mass,” Petrizzo explained. “The next day, the priest asked if I would like to read. I did — and went the rest of the week to daily Mass. I told Sandy I really felt good. At the same time, I was thinking about the accidents.” But he found his attitude changed: “I turned from asking God why he did this to me and instead asked, ‘Lord why did you let me live when the two accidents should have killed me?’”
He would find the answer shortly.
Back home, he continued with daily Mass, soon joining those praying the Liturgy of the Hours and staying after Mass for the Rosary.
Though the franchise endeavor did not work out, it proved to the Petrizzos that they should have a dog-focused ministry. “If I stop worrying where the money will come from and what God wants me to do with the dogs, everything will work out,” he thought.
In 2005, they started Project 2 Heal, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, to breed and train Labrador retrievers as service dogs and companion dogs for those in need, as well as to donate dogs to service organizations around the country.
Charlie speaks glowingly of the way these service dogs help people like Staff Sgt. Nick Bennett in Indianapolis. While serving in Iraq, Bennett was severely injured in an explosion. He lost a great degree of mobility and also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“We donated a dog to the canine-assistance network in Indiana, and they trained that dog, Festus, for Nick,” Petrizzo said, describing how Bennett’s life has changed dramatically. With Festus, Nick can now go out in public without fear of unexpected noises causing PTSD to reoccur.
Festus helps Nick up and down from the floor to play with his young children; he also helps him with shoes and socks, hits elevator buttons and turns lights on and off.
But his is not the only life-changing tale.
Petrizzo shares what he calls the most unbelievable story he has experienced — which occurred when filmmakers were making a documentary of his life and Project 2 Heal called Charlie’s Scars.
They went to an Indiana women’s prison, where 10 inmates were training service dogs. When Petrizzo learned what one woman with a 60-year sentence had done, he did not want her training the dog. But then he went to interview her.
“God told me: ‘Don’t judge her; I’ll judge her. You make something good from this,’” he recalled.
He saw that she was remorseful 22 years later. Asking the Lord if there was any way he could help her, Petrizzo found himself saying, “How would you like to train one of my puppies in memory of your victim?” She started crying and said, “Yes, I would like to do that.”
Petrizzo had the victim’s mother pick the dog and name it — “Angel.”
In December, Angel was placed with an 11-year-old girl who suffers from spina bifida.
But that’s not the end of the story. Petrizzo wore a St. Benedict Cross at the prison, and Angel’s trainer asked about it. He started sharing his faith with her in letters and sent her a copy of the Catechism and books by Hahn. Eventually, she decided that she wanted to become Catholic; she entered RCIA and, in February, she entered the Church.
“God performed a miracle there,” Petrizzo said, also noting that the victim’s family has found needed healing through the news of these events.
“That is what Project 2 Heal is all about — bringing healing to a new level, either on one end of the leash with the trainer or at the other end with the person it helps.”
Children with autism and Down syndrome benefit from labs that are trained as skilled companions — they serve as friends to and for these children and elicit calm to ease autistic outbursts.
“The dog invites others to come to that child,” Petrizzo explained.
Petrizzo’s future vision for Project 2 Heal is broad. He wants “to build a world-class facility on 25-plus acres, where children with special needs and their families and wounded warriors can come to a peaceful place where they can enjoy the puppies and dogs.”
In the meantime, he believes everyone has their own “Project 2 Heal.” We have to “discover and use that gift” how God wants us to, he said. “Our organization is a reflection of that truth.”
“The greatest ‘Project 2 Heal’ undertaken was by God, his only Son dying for us to free us from sin and give us the chance for eternal life,” he added.
“If it weren’t for my Catholic faith, and if I did not find my faith first, I would not be doing this,” he said.
“Jesus said, ‘I came not to be served, but to serve.’ Didn’t he tell us, ‘Pick up your cross and follow me?’” he added. “The peace and joy I have found is greater than any I found when I was pursuing material things.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.