If there was a superlative for cutest classmate at St. Patrick Catholic School in Louisville, Kentucky, Ariel Lange would most definitely win.
The 4-year-old service dog got her own spot in the school yearbook this year, next to her "person," 7-year-old kindergartner Hadley Jo Lange. The move was a surprise to Hadley Jo's family — one that they won't forget.
"We were just so touched," Hadley Jo's mom Heather DeVore Lange tells PEOPLE. "She's even on the faculty page, too. I thought it was really cool that they respect her and her abilities, what she does for the school and my daughter."
Hadley Jo was diagnosed with epilepsy at 2 years old, and labradoodle Ariel came into her life just about one year later, after another person's service dog happened to pick up on her seizure symptoms.
"That was the turning point for me as a mom and a nurse practitioner," Lange says. "I hadn't been thinking outside the box, but here was this option — a non-conventional option — to help my daughter. I was so desperate for answers, why this was happening to her, what was going on. So I started researching service dogs."
Properly bred and trained service dogs cost tens of thousands of dollars, and most insurance companies won't cover them. According to Lange, there are nonprofits that do pair families with pups, but the wait lists can be years long. So the Langes turned to fundraising, shocked by the immediate outpouring of support from friends and family.
A trip to Ultimate Canine outside of Indianapolis matched Hadley Jo with Ariel, and the rest is history.
"With Ariel, I can go to sleep at night knowing I've done what I can do for Hadley Jo," Lange says. "It's a day-by-day process. But now we have eyes and ears on Hadley Jo while we sleep, when I'm not around. I don't know how I can ever thank this dog — she saves my daughter's life."
Ariel can sense when Hadley Jo has a seizure coming on and alert the designated adult in the room (at school, that's one specified teacher), meaning the 7-year-old instantly gets her life-saving anti-seizure medication before an episode starts. Currently on two medications to control her three types of seizures, her condition is "managed," Lange says. "She's in a much better place than once was."
Being the only child at school with a service dog, Hadley Jo has faced some challenges, like getting to ride the bus with Ariel. "It took reaching out at the national level and engaging the legal team for the Epilepsy Foundation to help me prove the school bus company was in violation of ADA laws," Lange explains. "But you educate people. As soon as we were able to demonstrate that it was a violation, she was on the bus the next day. We see it as our family paving the way for future families."
Keeping other 7-year-olds calm around Ariel has proved to be less difficult. "In the first weeks of school, the kids do ask a lot of questions, so we explain to them she's a working dog and when she has her vest on, even if she's being friendly, you can't touch or pet her," Lange explains. "It takes about a week, but Ariel is so quiet in her designated spot that they sometimes don't even notice her. And when the vest comes off, they can pet her and she can play."
Lange cautions that a service dog, while a tremendous help, isn't just an easy fix to a medical problem. "Ariel hasn't made our life any easier — it's very hard to adapt and transition," Lange — who also shares daughters Hannah, 15, and Heidi, almost 2, with husband Jason — explains. "We have a different family dynamic than we used to have. But our life is better with her, our daughter's life is better and our family life is better."
Ariel's presence has even encouraged Lange to launch a nonprofit that helps other families looking for service dogs for children with seizure disorders.
"Anyone can order a service dog vest off Amazon and put it on a dog — there are lots of scams out there and so many people have lost a lot of money," Lange says. "It's been my intention all along to give back to our community and help other families, so no one has to feel as helpless as I did. I'm just a mom in Kentucky trying to find the good in such an ugly disease."
Ariel's yearbook photo definitely helped Lange find a glimmer of good, too. "It's a global message of inclusivity, that it's okay that not everybody looks the same or learns the same," she says. "We all need that smile right now."