IM this article to a friend!

December 13, 2002

Girl's road to college degree paved with paw prints

From: Pensacola News Journal, FL - 13 Dec 2002

Ashley Branch

It's been more than four years since Angelina "Annie" McKinnon has felt compelled to sleep on the floor.

She no longer needs to be afraid that she won't hear an intruder. She can sleep through the night while her dog, Kip, keeps his ears perked up for sounds.

McKinnon - who graduates from the University of West Florida today - received Kip, a hearing dog, after applying for him in 1998 when she was a senior at Washington High School. The two expect to cross the stage together today at the Pensacola Civic Center, each donning a graduate's cap after four years of hard work.

"The main reason I need Kip is because without my hearing aids, I couldn't hear much of anything," McKinnon said. "I wanted to be independent."

With a degree in hand and Kip at her side, McKinnon has found a future filled with confidence and education. She was hired this semester to teach full time at Blue Angels Elementary School and is going back to UWF, where she will pursue her master's degree in instructional technology.

After seeing a demonstration with a hearing dog at a bookstore, McKinnon wrote more than 100 letters to companies asking for donations to raise the $5,000 for her own hearing dog. Within a few weeks, she had $7,000. The extra money went to help a man in a wheelchair who needed a dog.

Six weeks later, Kip, a mixed terrier, arrived and brought McKinnon an independence she had never known. She lost her hearing when she suffered from a high fever as a baby.

Since acquiring Kip, McKinnon can do things she never did before. Kip lets her know if the phone rings, he wakes her up when the alarm clock goes off and he even lets her know when an emergency vehicle is headed her way while she drives.

During her classes at UWF, Kip stayed nestled under her chair.

Keith Whinnery, an associate professor in the special education department, taught McKinnon in several classes. He said she was a bright student, hard worker and not afraid to ask questions.

Whinnery also enjoyed having Kip in class. He said once Kip alerted the class when a car caught fire in the parking lot outside the classroom.

"I hated to see both of them leave," Whinnery said. "Kip was always so much fun to have in class. Sometimes he listened better than other students. He was never a distraction."

Whinnery said he admires McKinnon because she did not stop with just her schoolwork. He said she went above and beyond by attending class and passing.

"I think that comes from her upbringing," Whinnery said. "She definitely knew how to advocate for herself. If there was something that she felt was an unfair barrier, she knew how to approach the system."

McKinnon said that confidence is something she didn't always have.

"I used to be the shy, reserved student," McKinnon said of her high-school days. "Ever since I got Kip I've been more confident. He actually taught me to speak up."

Since then, the duo has worked together to educate people. McKinnon has spoken to classes at the university about her hearing impairment and Kip's role.

In the classroom at Blue Angels, Kip is not a distraction. While McKinnon gives her lessons, he sleeps in a dog bed in the corner. For the pupils, the dog is a motivation. Those who behave are given time to pet and play with Kip.

"If the kids start acting up he turns his back to them," McKinnon said. "They get really into it. It's a good behavior-management tool with the kids."

McKinnon wrote a book to help teach the pupils at Blue Angels about Kip, and the school explained to parents about the dog in a Parent Teacher Association newsletter.

In the hallways McKinnon and Kip are greeted with enthusiastic waves and hellos. Students are excited to be in McKinnon's class. Kip has made it cool to be in the special-education classroom.

For Karen Owen, the principal at Blue Angels, McKinnon taking a job at the school is a blessing - especially in a time when certified special-education teachers are hard to find.

"It has been a wonderful opportunity for the students to be with Annie and Kip and watch her work and him work," Owen said. "She's suddenly the most popular class in the school."

Owen, who taught special-education classes, said McKinnon is an inspiration to the pupils.

"She's a shining example for all the kids," Owen said. "They can look at Annie and see they can get their degree, go on to college and be what they want."

Want to go?

The University of West Florida's fall 2002 commencement ceremonies are set to start at 9:30 a.m. today in the Pensacola Civic Center.

Linda Dye, retiring vice president for student affairs, will deliver the keynote address to an estimated 1,400 graduates.

Copyright © 1997-2002 The Pensacola News Journal, Pensacola, Florida.