A Commitment to Service

Starin’s Malissa Dillman organizes service-dog fundraiser to allow the AV community to help those most in need.

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A Commitment to Service

Malissa Dillman, CTS-D, CTS-I, is deeply passionate about AV, but that passion is equaled — perhaps even exceeded — by her devotion to animals and to helping people in need. Happily, Dillman, director of business strategy and alliances at Starin, has found a way to fuse all those things and make a real, measurable difference in people’s lives. The fruits of her initiative will be coming your way at InfoComm ’22 this June.

Actually, Dillman is picking up right where she left off at InfoComm ’19. There, she organized a fundraiser that generated thousands of dollars to fund a service dog for a local Orlando, Fla. resident. Now, she has forged a partnership with a Nevada-based service-dog organization and embarked on a fundraising campaign to leave Las Vegas just a little bit better than she’ll find it. It’s up to us — the #avtweeps who live and breathe this industry — to make her bold vision come to life.

‘Can We Make It Mean Something?’

The seed of Dillman’s idea germinated when, several years ago, a company brought a stunt dog to CEDIA. Unsurprisingly, the company’s booth got lots of traffic; after all, people love dogs, and folks working trade shows miss their own pets back at home. The experience got Dillman thinking. “I loved the idea,” she says. “But I thought, ‘What if we can make it mean something?’”

For Dillman, that meant amplifying the message that service dogs are life-changing companions for those in need — whether they’re soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or those who suffer from physical disabilities — and it meant helping to alleviate the financial burden of acquiring one. I was shocked to learn that a service dog costs $20,000 to $30,000, inclusive of the extensive training it goes through as well as breeding and veterinary expenses. Worse yet, insurance companies will not fund these indispensable helpers and loyal companions.

Thus, back in 2019, Dillman selected Florida-based New Horizon Service Dogs as Starin’s partner for the first iteration of this fundraising drive. She selected the organization because it’s completely dependent on donations and volunteers.

For Dillman, it was essential to ensure that the funds raised would go straight to financing a service dog, rather than going toward administrative expenses. “One of the big things for me is working with an organization that gives the dog away,” Dillman states, emphasizing that this cause resonates deeply with her. It’s so personal, in fact, that, in the months after InfoComm ’19, Dillman and her family took home a golden retriever that was training for service. They spent six months working on his socialization training. (It takes approximately two years for a dog to be fully service-ready.)

Success at InfoComm ’19

Starin’s efforts at InfoComm ’19 were an unqualified success. Indeed, Dillman and her colleagues raised close to $20,000 — enough to make a service dog far more obtainable for a Florida resident in need. Service dogs brought onsite to the Orange County Convention Center not only generated smiles for countless InfoComm showgoers but also demonstrated, through their actions, the incredible work that service animals perform.

Soldier with military dog outdoors on a sunny day

PEPPERSMINT/stock.adobe.com

Dillman shares the story of a Marine who attended the show. Suffering from PTSD, the Marine, experiencing night terrors and other debilitating symptoms, had been severely incapacitated in navigating day-to-day life. His service dog changed all that. Dillman becomes visibly emotional when talking about how the dog would turn on the lights and apply gentle body pressure when the Marine was experiencing a night terror, awakening him with soothing licks. “To see them be able to help and improve someone’s life like that…,” she trails off, emotion getting the best of her.

Dillman repeatedly stresses that this isn’t some Starin-centered gimmick to try to drive booth traffic; it’s about raising money for a fantastic cause and, in the process, helping service dogs in training progress in their socialization.

“The dogs are at InfoComm because it’s important for them to have as many experiences as possible,” she explains, noting that service dogs must be comfortable and confident in any environment that presents itself.

A trade show offers new sights, sounds, smells, people and environments, thus allowing the dogs to learn and adapt; in so doing, when they’re paired with human companions, they will be ready to serve in all situations.

InfoComm ’22 Plans

With InfoComm ’22 set to emanate from Las Vegas, Dillman carefully selected Silver State Service Dogs as her partner organization. Primarily serving first responders, military members and others afflicted with PTSD, Silver State Service Dogs will receive every dollar that members of the AV community donate via gofund.me/386d5af4 because Starin has generously pledged to pay the service fee that fundraising platform GoFundMe charges.

InfoComm attendees will have the opportunity to meet about four dogs at this year’s show, all of them in training to serve a human companion. And handlers from Silver State will be on hand to educate showgoers and share stories about how service dogs do everything from defusing confrontations that could potentially be triggering to assisting their companions pay for groceries and receive change. “These are highly trained dogs,” Dillman marvels, “and they provide a service to make people’s lives much, much better.”

To answer a question that I know is on readers’ minds — yes, you’ll be able to interact with the dogs onsite at the Las Vegas Convention Center. However, Dillman stresses that InfoComm attendees should not simply walk up to the dogs and start interacting; instead, they should wait for the handler to release a dog from service/training, thus giving both the guest and the animal permission to play. She mentions that, at the Orlando show, the organization had taught the command “make a friend,” which told the dogs they were released from service and permitted to interact naturally.

By showing that respect and restraint, InfoComm showgoers will be able to enjoy the animals’ presence without compromising the essential training they’re receiving to serve their future companions.

Reaching the Goal

Looking not merely to match but, indeed, to exceed what Starin and she raised in 2019, Dillman has set the ambitious goal of raising $20,000. With those funds, the intention is to give somebody in Las Vegas — a first responder, a veteran or someone else in need — a service dog for free.

Potential donors should be aware that Silver State Service Dogs is a 501(c)3 organization, and it will gladly provide a receipt to facilitate a tax deduction. Already, members of our industry community have begun to step up, with DTEN joining the effort; Dillman and the Starin team encourage others to join, as well. She hopes that, by the Friday that the show closes, her Starin colleagues and she will be able to announce that they’ve met their goal and, thus, be able to celebrate the #avtweeps world having made a huge difference.

And that’s exactly how Dillman, who is self-effacing and focused primarily on the cause, views this — namely, as an initiative for all of us. “It’s an endeavor for the industry,” she declares. “I’m just a conduit.” So please consider donating and spread the word across social platforms using #StarinCares. It’s a way for us — many of us quite fortunate — to pay back some of what we’ve been given. As Dillman puts it, “While some of us are struggling, more of us are lucky to have jobs in the industry we’re in, which has been pretty good to us. So, if we can help someone else, that’s just good karma.”

Donate today. Go to gofund.me/386d5af4.

About the Author

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Dan Ferrisi has been covering the commercial AV industry as an editor, reporter and writer since 2004. He is the former editor of Sound & Communications, and he joined Commercial Integrator as editor-in-chief in November 2021.

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