Kokomo teenager Ezra Spencer remembers wanting to cry with the woman on the other end of the phone.
Just moments before, the woman had been sharing with the 16-year-old a story about how her daughter had gotten lost in the woods, and there were no K-9s immediately available to help in the search and rescue.
Having to search the woods by foot instead, it was unfortunately too little too late by the time rescuers located the little girl.
And that’s when it clicked that what Spencer was creating would be completely worth it.
For several weeks prior to that conversation, Spencer — a member of the Boy Scouts of America — had been busy designing and building obstacles for a K-9 agility course that would eventually be on the grounds of the Indiana Sheriff’s Youth Ranch (ISYR) in Brazil, Indiana.
It was all part of a service project Spencer was required to complete before he could earn the rank of Eagle Scout, the organization’s highest distinction and an honor he received during a recent ceremony.
Retired teacher Phyllis Rogers has known Spencer for years and mentored him through the process of obtaining his Eagle Scout badge.
She was also the one who approached Spencer about the prospect of designing the course in the first place.
“I went to a meal that they [ISYR] hosted in the spring to acknowledge people that had been donors at the ranch,” she said, “and that’s how I was introduced to the K-9 facility. I learned about their wish to put together a search-and-rescue training facility on the grounds for the handlers and dogs, and I knew Ezra didn’t have an Eagle project. And I thought this was a perfect Eagle project for him.”
Spencer said he remembers the day Rogers told him about the project.
“I swear she came skipping back and said, ‘Ezra, I found you an Eagle project,’” he said laughing. “… And when she explained it in its simplest form, it made sense. My thought process was that it wasn’t an overachiever project, but it also wasn’t something that wasn’t going to help the community.”
So Spencer got to work designing different portions of the agility course — such as an elevated dog walk, bark barrels, bark boxes and a tunnel — training tools utilized by search-and-rescue K-9s every day that can help in real world scenarios like locating a lost child or dementia patient.
But the process didn’t come without its set of challenges.
Not only did Ezra have to design the obstacles, but he also had to price materials, seek donations and supervise a team of volunteers, a task that often tried the young man’s patience.
“The biggest challenge was Ezra not wanting to complete it,” Donis, Ezra’s mother, joked. “Ezra is the kind that he has to go do it. If we need it, let’s build it. So he was forced to go through the process step-by-step and having to learn to be patient with some of it.
“But there are no words for the parental pride that comes from seeing him succeed,” she added. “When we finished the install, a trainer lady came with her black Lab, Rosie. They had Rosie do a number of obstacles to demonstrate to us how much more effective it is to train dogs with actual obstacles. … So it was rather cool to not only start to understand the magnitude of it, but to see the course in action too.”
Todd Spencer, Ezra’s father and an Eagle Scout himself, agreed with his wife, saying the project was a large task for his son to take on, but it was worth it knowing its direct impact.
“This thing is so far-reaching,” he said, referring to the agility course. “There are so many people who will benefit from it. And the cool part is that we have since learned that there are two other Eagle Scouts that are probably going to use the grounds to compound onto what he’s already done. So he was the lead in starting that course, and it’s just going to get bigger from there.”
The agility course has already gotten quite the action too, the Spencers noted.
K-9s and their handlers from across the region and as far away as South Korea and Argentina have already trained on the course, taking what they learn there and applying it back home with their own departments.
And for Ezra, perhaps that’s what means more than any merit badge or Eagle Scout distinction.
It’s knowing that what he created might very well one day save a life.
“This is not going to help just one or two people,” he said, “but it’ll probably affect the United States for all I know. It’s a lot bigger than I ever thought it’d be. It was a little overwhelming [at the time] but it was totally worth it. And hopefully that woman who lost her daughter, her story won’t happen again.”