ANDERSON, Ind. —
It’s part of the birthday tradition — cake, candles, singing, and gifts, of course.
Except if you’re Graham Longnaker.
He got cake and candles, all right, but it was a whole lot of dog food that made his birthday wishes come true. That’s because Graham decided this year for his 11th birthday he would skip the gifts for himself, and instead ask for donations of food, toys, and cash for the Madison County Humane Society.
“That’s kind of amazing for an 11-year old,” said Graham’s mom, Amber Longnaker. It’s all the more amazing because Graham is allergic to animals, and never gets to hold or pet the animals he loves so much.
When he was just a little guy, Graham had his heart set on a dog for his fifth birthday, but discovered when he was 4 that he was seriously allergic to animals.
“It breaks our heart,” said Amber. “He is absolutely 100 percent allergic to animals. He has trouble breathing around cats.”
He experiences breathing difficulty around dogs as well. “If they lick him, he breaks out in hives,” she said.
“I can’t have any cats or dogs,” said Graham. “That makes me feel sad, but this makes me feel a lot better that I can give to the Humane Society, so the dogs can have food. I want to make them feel happy.”
He thought of a way to show his love for animals after watching the example of others.
“My teacher, he helps in the shelter. He adopts and fosters dogs and cats,” said Graham. “My parents have always said, ‘Put others first.’ I thought this was a way I could give back to others.”
Helping animals as a project
When his sister, 26-year-old Mallory Bond, rescued two dogs, it made Graham want to help out even more.
“He is an animal lover, but he just can’t be around them. I think this is why he chose to do that,” said Bryan Granger, Longnaker’s fifth-grade teacher at 10th Street Elementary.
Last year, when Graham was a fourth-grader at East Side Intermediate in Granger’s classroom, his class participated in a community service project.
“Our team chose the Animal Protection League,” said Granger. Students wound up delivering three truckloads of donations.
“That was our big thing, and that kind of stuck with him,” said Granger. The teacher admits that helping animals is a personal priority that he shares with his students.
“It’s just been kid of a passion of mine,” said Granger. “I love animals and want to do what I can.” He’s been a volunteer at the shelter, 613 Dewey St., for a few years. He’s currently fostering a dog, along with his other pets. “I live in the country. I’m lucky.”
As for Graham’s altruistic birthday project, it fits with the picture that Granger paints of his young student. “He’s very kind-hearted, empathetic, cares about other people. He’s very dependable and very responsible. ... He’s just a leader by example.”
Graham’s a good student, and he has a broad range of interests. He plays baseball, likes to draw, and loves anything National Geographic or History Channel. He recently started to learn to play piano.
This week, Graham and his mom took the hefty birthday stash to the Madison County Humane Society, 2219 Crystal St.
Lauren Caldwell, shelter co-manager, was all smiles about Graham’s donations, including an envelope containing $120 in cash.
“It means so much,” said Caldwell. “Every little bit helps. If we don’t have donations, we won’t be here.”
Although Graham couldn’t get cuddly with animals, Caldwell gave him a personal tour of the outside pens and a brand new cat barn. The two-story structure, as yet unoccupied, was built with donated labor and materials.
Amber noted that Graham’s dad, John, couldn’t join them for the trip to the Humane Society, but that he’s very proud of the mature, loving son that Graham has become. Graham also has a sister, Isabel, 14.
The soft-spoken young man has no regrets about his decision to skip the birthday presents and help the animals instead. He said there’s a good possibility he’ll do the same thing next year.