1200 Weimer Hall | P.O. Box 118405
Gainesville, FL 32611
(352) 392-5551

A service of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.

© 2024 WUFT / Division of Media Properties
News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Community Provides Companion For Cerebral Palsy Child


“Olivia Pitts is so beautiful!” she says to herself in the mirror.

When her teachers describe the 3-year-old, they say she is always singing, excited and happy. Sophia Gianfrancisco works at Kidworks, Olivia’s preschool, and says Olivia likes to speak in the third person.

“She looks like she’s off balance sometimes, and she’ll fall over but get up and say ‘I’m okay, Miss Sophie! Olivia Pitts is okay!’” Gianfrancisco said.

Olivia has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination. Her mother searched for ways to give Olivia more independence as she grows. She found a solution in a service dog.

Dr. Lisa Finnegan, director of Curriculum & Instruction for United Cerebral Palsy Central Florida, said cerebral palsy affects everyone differently.

"Some individuals are faced with difficulty controlling motor function where as others may not be able to walk or feed themselves," she said in an email.

"Likewise, individuals with cerebral palsy may be affected cognitively as well as in the bodily control and functions," she said. "Individuals may face abnormal muscle tone, poor muscle tone or muscle weakness, abnormal reflexes, contracted muscles -- challenges could be anything from inability to move to spastic type movements, and then also cognitive challenges depending on the extent of brain damage."

Joy Pitts, Olivia’s mother, is crowdfunding using GoFundMe, a site that lets people share their cause on Facebook and donate money. A little over a month after the site was created, their goal of $10,000 had been reached.

The money will be used toward finding a pure-bred service dog, training the dog and transporting it from Missouri to Florida. They are currently working with multiple agencies in Missouri to find a dog that will help Olivia.

Olivia was born with the disorder after complications in her delivery resulted in a brain injury.

According to the National Institutes of Health, cerebral palsy can’t be cured, but treatment will often improve a child's capabilities. In general, the earlier treatment begins, the better chance children have of overcoming developmental disabilities or learning new ways to accomplish the tasks that challenge them.

A study in the Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology journal titled “Cerebral Palsy Epidemiology: Where are We Now and Where are We Going?” states that the prevalence among live births of the condition is increasing.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Olivia began having seizures.

Pitts said the seizures aren’t the characteristic “falling and shaking” kind. She said Olivia blacks out “like a person with narcolepsy.”

Olivia sometimes has seizures while she is asleep. It is particularly dangerous then, because she can’t regulate her body temperature and begins shivering and approaching hypothermia.

The dog will help Olivia with her seizures by getting underneath her and bracing her fall. If she seizes at night, it will bark and wake up Olivia’s mother. The dog will also be able to calm her down when she is too overwhelmed or having a panic attack.

Olivia’s preschool helped with the funding for her service dog by selling miniature gardens. The children put dirt and seeds in an egg carton and sold them to parents and their friends, said Gianfrancisco.

“One of the dads at the preschool is a veterinarian and said he would take the dog on as a patient,” she said. “He will see the dog free of charge. There’s so much support for her.”

Joy Pitts agreed, saying she didn’t personally know half of the people who donated to the GoFundMe.

“It’s a lot to go through for a 3-year-old, but it will be life changing,” Pitts said.

Cassidy is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.