SALT LAKE CITY — Dawn Chagnon is a survivor and a very independent person despite living with a disability. She was born three months premature and has had cerebral palsy from birth.
"My wheelchair is my legs," said Dawn Chagnon. "If I could trade my wheelchair for a set of legs, I would. Gizmo has been my service dog since 2001. She goes almost everywhere I go. She can tell before hand when I am going to have a seizure, and jumps up on me and starts whining and scratching. A lot of my seizures are silent, compound, complex seizures. I do not know what I will do when I have to replace her. She is 6 years old, and can serve as long as she is willing."
Chagnon said traveling the streets in a wheelchair can sometimes be dangerous. She has been hit by a car several times, but has not been seriously injured. She feels God protects her and that is why on a day-to-day basis, she wants to serve God.
Chagnon is a member of the Cathedral of the Madeleine Parish, Salt Lake City. She serves as secretary for the Cathedral’s Catholic Women’s Society, the Salt Lake Deanery, and the Catholic Woman’s League. She enjoys working on her computer.
She volunteers for the Cathedral’s Good Samaritan Program every other week when her health allows, helps serve coffee after Mass on Sundays, and co-teaches Sunday school to third- and fourth-graders.
"I do these things to serve God knowing he gave me my life and he can take my life at anytime," said Chagnon. "I like volunteering and helping others who cannot help themselves. I also like being with friends and staying busy."
As a result of her service and willingness to get involved, Chagnon was named the 2006 Cathedral of the Madeleine Parish Woman of the Year, which is part of the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s (DCCW) annual convention. Gizmo was named the Dog of the Year.
"When I first met Dawn, she was working two jobs as a greeter, but has since been laid off from both positions," said Amy Kennedy, president of the Cathedral of the Madeleine Women’s Society. "Once she was off work, she began volunteering for various functions in our women’s society. When our secretary relocated, Dawn volunteered to fill in. She became the secretary and now prepares the minutes.
"I think my husband sums Dawn up best," said Kennedy. "After getting to know her during the past two years, he noticed that although Dawn’s life is not easy, she is always smiling."
Chagnon grew up in Pennsylvania until she was 9 years old, when her family moved to Arizona. When she was 10 years old, she was flown to Shriner’s Hospital in Salt Lake City to begin a series of surgeries requiring her to be hospitalized for three to six months at a time.
She graduated from Catalina High School in Arizona in 1984.In 1988, she flew to Utah, to see what life had to offer here. During the flight, she made friends with the pilot. As she got off the plane, he gave her $100 because at that time federal regulations would not allow her to switch her supplemental disability income to another state without waiting three weeks. With the $100 she was able to find a room at the Carlton Hotel on South Temple and live there until she could receive her disability checks again.
Unfortunately the plane flight was not good for her terrier service dog who had to ride with the luggage. The loud engines caused the dog to lose her hearing. From then on she could only respond to hand commands.
"I was able to find housing in a motor lodge that had a small kitchenette, a living room, and a bedroom," said Chagnon. "I have since moved several times, which is difficult because some places do not allow service dogs."
Chagnon grew up a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But as faith would have it, following several disappointments in her life, she found the Catholic Church.
"One day I was just sitting outside St. Ann Church thinking, and Msgr. John J. Sullivan, (then pastor and now deceased) came up to me and said, ‘Come on in.’ I did, and then went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) at St. Ann Parish and was baptized. My life started changing for the better. I began attending the (DCCW) conventions, and have been attending ever since. I became a member of the Cathedral Parish because traveling there was easier on the motor on my wheelchair."
Chagnon does her own housework and cooks her own meals, but receives help and support from Chris Decker, also a member of the Cathedral of the Madeleine Parish. Decker is a very good friend, and Chagnon admires her like a sister.
Chagnon said Father Joseph Mayo, rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, also offers her support and is someone she can talk to in times of need.
"Fr. Mayo gives me a lot of my stability," she said. "If it were not for Fr. Mayo and Chris believing in me, there would be times I would fall apart. There are others I would like to thank as well who wish to remain anonymous."