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Sophie's story touches dog-loving boy's heart

TRINITY — Aaron Youpa wrote the letter before telling his grandparents. After he was done, he showed it to them to see if it was okay. What they read made them cry, even his grandpa, Richard Youpa, a 74-year-old who grew up hard on a farm and now lives in a lovely home on a golf course, but whose toughness didn't leave him. He doesn't seem to cry easily. And that evening, in his recliner, he did.

"Dear Sophie and Troy Fergueson,

I'm so sorry for Sophie and you and what you have to go through…"

Sophie is a forensic dog battling cancer and Sgt. Fergueson is her owner. He helped create the K9 Forensics Recovery Team, which is a nonprofit group of law enforcement officers and specially trained dogs that find people who have died but whose bodies are missing.

Sophie can ride in a boat and smell a body underwater and has such a good nose that she's hit on pre-Civil War graves. She has helped to locate murder weapons (even years old, with the blood wiped off and buried) and can tell any place human remains have been stored.

Fergueson works with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, but the forensics team is all volunteer. Sophie is his family's dog. Her character and talent led Fergueson to train her for forensics and to create the nonprofit group, which has worked on local high-profile cases such as Jessica Lunsford and Sandra Prince — and national ones, such as Natalee Holloway in Aruba and helping to recover the dead from Hurricane Katrina.

Then in May, doctors found out that Sophie had inoperable cancer in her urethra. Her only hope was a new and expensive treatment — at least $16,000 — at the University of Florida. Fergueson made an appointment and he and his wife put the first payment of $7,000 on a credit card they had just paid off. It was going to be a long battle, with many trips to Gainesville for chemotherapy and scopes and tests and prayers.

The community embraced Sophie and donations poured in. In August, a story in the St. Petersburg Times told Sophie's story and Aaron Youpa read it at Seven Springs Middle School, where he is in the seventh grade.

He had just $3, from babysitting a neighbor's dog, but he wanted to give it to Sophie. In the letter, Aaron told Sophie and Sgt. Fergueson that his dog, a 15-year-old poodle named Wassa, died last fall. He misses Wassa.

"So just remember, don't give up on yourself or Sophie," he wrote.

"If I had a dog, I would want one as calm and brave as Sophie."

Aaron asked his grandpa if it was okay to send only $3, since that was all he had.

"Do you think they'd mind?" he asked. His grandfather said no, not at all, and he and his wife of 51 years were taken aback by the pure heart of their grandson.

Soon after sending the letter, Aaron asked if he could sell golf balls on the cart path to raise more money for Sophie. As their back yard is on the course, they find about a dozen balls a week.

Aaron clipped out the story and pasted it to a piece of cardboard to make a sign. He wrote: Golf Ball Sales for Saving Sophie. He told three balls for $1 and, at the end of the day, had $50 and sent it to Fergueson.

Since the article, more than $3,000 in donations have been sent to help Sophie.

At her last appointment, the doctors said her tumor has reduced by 65 percent. She's in clinical remission, but has to continue getting chemotherapy until her tumor is gone.

Aaron's kindness touched Fergueson. So Fergueson plotted with Aaron's grandmother and, on Friday evening, surprised Aaron by showing up at their house with Sophie.

Aaron, who is tall and lean like his grandfather, was shy, and softly petted Sophie. His grandmother, who made pot roast for dinner because it was a special night, took photos and his grandfather stood back, proud.

"It doesn't take much to make a big difference," Fergueson said to Aaron. "And you figured that out." Aaron smiled and shook his hand. He barely spoke above a whisper and said that when he read about Sophie, he thought about his dog and how he couldn't save him. But he could help Sophie, so, in his mind, it was simple: If you can, you should, without question.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

>>To help

About Sophie

Sophie, a yellow Labrador retriever with the K9 Forensics Recovery Team, is battling cancer. For information about Sophie or the group, visit www.k9forensicsteam.com/home.htm or contact Sgt. Troy Fergueson at (727) 243-7711 or thesarge011@verizon.net. Donations for Sophie's medical bills may be sent to Save Our Sophie Fund, c/o the K9 Forensics Recovery Team, P.O. Box 743, Port Richey, FL 34673. Donations are tax-deductible and much appreciated.

Sophie's story touches dog-loving boy's heart 09/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2008 5:46pm]

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