She and her dogs exemplify what 'better together' really means.

For hundreds of thousands of Americans with disabilities, the assistance that service dogs provide can be invaluable. Bridget Evans, who was born with the condition spina bifida and uses mobility aids to get around, knows this firsthand. Since childhood, she's relied on service dogs for tasks like opening doors, turning on lights, and picking up objects. At times, they even pull her along in her wheelchair. These animals, Evans says, "help me in so many ways to make sure that I'm confident and independent and ready for anything that life throws at us."

After successfully training her first dog, Coal, at age 10, Evans started volunteering to train more pups to become service dogs for other people with disabilities. She loved the work so much that in 2010, while studying at the University of Illinois, she founded the Illini Service Dogs (ISD), an organization that allows the school's students to foster and train service dogs. Over the years, the completely volunteer-run organization has helped dozens of dogs get placed in homes throughout the country.

"Instead of me doing it as one person, I've been able to expand," Evans says. "Now, we have so many more disability allies and advocates and service dog trainers and handlers out there that are making the world a better place."

In addition to running the ISD, the founder is also busy bonding with her own service dog, 3-year-old Labrador retriever Lily. Evans started training the pup in 2019, and the "happy, smart" girl has been an enormous help with everyday mobility-related tasks, she says. Lily also provides plenty of support to her 9-year-old dog sister, fellow Lab Kinley, who Evans initially took in with the goal of training her to be someone else's service dog. Yet when Kinley began showing neurological symptoms, Evans and her family decided to adopt her as a pet instead. And the dog—despite losing her hearing at 6 months—has been "living out a life of luxury" ever since, per her owner.

Although their situations are unique, Lily and Kinley have developed the closest of bonds, cuddling on the couch and happily sharing their toys. "They love to spend as much time together as possible," says Evans, noting that the duo even stay side-by-side at the dog park. And they both care for the other, albeit in very different ways. Lily will eagerly wake Kinley up to go on adventures and alert her when it's playtime, placing a squeaky toy right in front of her sister's face to account for her deafness. Kinley, meanwhile, sets a good example for Lily on how to behave in chaotic situations and calms the younger dog down when she's too energetic. The two pups "help each other in ways that are not always apparent," Evans says.

And she couldn't be more grateful for the two dogs' roles in her life. "Having a service dog just really opened the world to me and has greatly improved my quality of life," Evans says. "They bring me so much comfort and joy and hope."