While Jo Anne Fusco’s career has taken her from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade to being a Jenny Craig franchisee, there’s one common thread throughout: Helping others. As Executive Director of The Exceptional Foundation of West Tennessee, (EFWT), Jo Anne leads staff and volunteers in enriching the lives of those with intellectual disabilities – Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and more through social, recreational and educational programs. And that’s just Jo Anne’s day job. In her “free time,” this Mobile, AL, native is the mother of three grown men, Patrick, Zach and Ryan; wife of 41 years to husband Jon; and one of the founders of Doggy Daze, a program that brings therapy pets to patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Jo Anne’s energy and drive are inspiring, and we are thrilled to introduce you to her as today’s FACE of Memphis!

Jo Anne Fusco is the executive director of the Exceptional Foundation of West Tennessee, as well as a therapy dog owner and trainer.

Jo Anne Fusco is the Executive Director of The Exceptional Foundation of West Tennessee, as well as a therapy dog owner and trainer.

Tell us about The Exceptional Foundation of West Tennessee (EFWT).

EFWT is a safe and friendly environment where caregivers can feel comfortable leaving their loved ones. Kicker, my first therapy dog, and I visited doing the READ (reading education assistance dogs) program.

I was hired as Executive Director to help move the program forward, raise money and awareness and increase our numbers so we can serve more individuals. We have grown from 12 to around 50 special needs children and adults through our daily programs. We serve over 200 in our daily, after-school and summer camp programs.

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Jo Anne is pictured here with her British Golden Retrievers, Keys, left, and Boss. Boss is a 9-year-old and very experienced therapy dog, and Keys is just a year old and recently passed his therapy dog test.

"The participants at The Exceptional Foundation love to learn how to take care of dogs and be a responsible owner, says Jo Anne. "Boss and Keys also teach fire safety by doing STOP DROP AND ROLL! And we usually get a good laugh!"

“The participants at The Exceptional Foundation love to learn how to take care of dogs and be responsible owners, says Jo Anne, shown here with her pups at West Cancer Center. “Boss and Keys also teach fire safety by doing ‘stop, drop and roll,’ and we usually get a good laugh!”

We are planning our major fundraiser, our 5th Annual Chili Cook Off at the Overton Square Courtyard on November 5 with family-friendly activities beginning at 10 a.m. and going through the day. We are not government-funded, so events like the Chili Cook Off, the Exceptional Fashion Show, Kickers book for children and Grain Free Dog Treats  that we package are how we raise our funds along with grants and donations.

Doggy Daze at St. Jude was started with a small group of us trying to set up pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy for the children. That was 14.5 years ago! Wow!! Kicker was the longest living of the group, and he also got nominated as volunteer of the year. Kicker visited St. Jude for 13 years. He has his 10-year pin, or I still have it! Kicker passed away in March of 2015. Boss is now filling those big paws, and Keys is about to start following in his footsteps!

Therapy dogs bring families and patients at West Cancer Center much-needed distraction, as well as other benefits.

Therapy dogs bring families and patients at West Cancer Center much-needed distraction, as well as other benefits.

You’ve also been an active participant in the American Kennel Club (AKC), especially working with/training therapy dogs. Tell us how that came about — and how therapy dogs can impact people with disabilities or patients.

Sixteen years ago Kicker came into my life as a 12-week-old British Golden Retriever. We were in obedience classes for the Canine Good Citizen test. Robb Bitler, my instructor, suggested I get tested for therapy work with Kicker (named for my son, who was the place kicker at University of Tennessee). Kicker passed the test, and we were on the ground running; we got pet therapy in St. Jude, LeBonheur, nursing homes, [the] Memphis Airport, West Cancer Center and, of course, The Exceptional Foundation.

Therapy dogs do wonders. When we walk into West Cancer Center you can feel the endorphins beginning to work. Patients who were slumped down are now sitting up straight, smiling and wanting to visit with the dogs. It takes their minds off of why they are there and gives them a few minutes to hug, touch or just look at these beautiful, compassionate animals. And it’s not just for patients and customers; the staff need a good hug or paw to get them smiling and help increase their productivity!  Animal-assisted therapy also can help lower blood pressure, ease nerves for fearful flyers at the airport and bring smiles and joy to a classroom at The Oral School for the Deaf.

The AKC, which I am an ambassador for, has provided our group, West Tennessee Therapy Dogs, with coloring books , hand outs, trainings and bookmarks for visits. They have featured Kicker many times as a therapy dog and recently did a heartwarming video as a cancer survivor for Stand Up For Cancer, which can be seen on their website. Kicker was also presented on the floor of The Westminster Dog Show for the therapy work he had done with a family and child from St Jude.

Therapy dogs change lives and comfort people at their darkest hours," says Jo Anne. "Being a handler is more than having a sweet dog. Its caring, comforting, and listening and sometimes just holding a hand."

“Therapy dogs change lives and comfort people at their darkest hours,” says Jo Anne. “Being a handler is more than having a sweet dog. It’s caring, comforting and listening and sometimes just holding a hand.”

Tell us about Doggy Daze — sounds like a truly exceptional program for the kids of St. Jude.

People really miss their furry friends and especially when you don’t feel good. It’s a wonderful feeling to see the smiles that the dogs bring to the St. Jude kids and really to anyone. It shows that a dog can make a difference, and Kicker, who helped start the program at St. Jude 15 years ago, certainly did!  He is still remembered. I’ll see a family at dinner or getting ice cream, and they come up to me and say, “Aren’t you Kicker’s mom? I met you 12 years ago at St. Jude!” Wow, it really touches my heart! And we aren’t just for the patients, we are also for the staff. At West Cancer Center we visit all the nurses, doctors, all staff and patients!  Boss is a huge hit and everyone knows him by name!

Boss, left, and Keys, wait for their next assignment at West Cancer Center.

Boss, left, and Keys, wait for their next assignment at West Cancer Center.

Shifting gears, where’s the first place you take an out-of-towner when they come to visit you in Memphis?

If it’s not for BBQ, it’s for Brother Juniper’s!

Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be …

To make all the people that we see well again! What a blessing that would be.

What one word describes you?

Driven.

What inspires you?

My dad was a great inspiration and left a great legacy for me to follow: Always do something good for others. I hope I am making him proud.

Job well done, Keys and Boss!

Job well done, Keys and Boss!

What’s your best piece of advice for others?

Work hard and dream big!

What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without excluding faith, family and friends?

My dogs, my SUV to transport them to all the places we go to make people happy, and my vacuum cleaner to clean up all the hair!

Thanks to Micki Martin for her wonderful photos of Jo Anne, Boss and Keys!

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