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George Abraham and Oakley, That NEPA Newfie — Why NEPA?

“I chose to stay in NEPA because I really love the valley. I like having four seasons and all my family and the people I grew up with close by.”

George Abraham grew up in Wilkes-Barre. He is, through and through, a city kid. Lots of long summer days yard-hopping, riding bikes, rolling the hardwood at Skateaway and cruising the Ave. In fact, if you checked, it’s a good bet you’d find Angelo’s sweet sauce runnin’ in them veins. In his heyday, George was that guy with the cool, fast cars. Today, however, the G.A.R. grad has slowed things down. He fell in love, got hitched and ditched the city for the Pocono Mountains.

And then he got a dog. And, just like that, this story is no longer about George. Sometimes, a pet is just a pet — a companion to join you on hikes or walks around the lake. And then sometimes they become actual lifeguards and get certified to jump out of helicopters and save lives. Her name is Oakley, aka That NEPA Newfie. She’s a 5-year-old Newfoundland, who, in short time, has racked up just about every water rescue training badge and patch and medal a dog can earn. She even has a legit life save under her collar.

Together, with her parents, Oakley has trained with the elite Italian School of Water Rescue Dogs. She’s made a name for herself among her peers at The American Academy of Canine Water Rescue. In her spare time, she patrols the beaches of Maine. She swims for miles, pulls people and pontoon boats out of the water and when invited, she nuzzles her soft little head under the palm of your hand.

We caught up with George and his sweet, be-goggled pup at Kirby Park. Oakley did her thing, keeping close watch over the pond and the ducks, and George, well, he took on the tough questions, like Why NEPA?

 

How long have you lived in NEPA?

My whole life. I’m 41. Oakley’s been here since 2017 when she was 12 weeks old. So, she’s been here for 5 years.

What do you love about your town?

Ok. Well, I just live in a tiny, little community in the middle of a state forest (laughs). As far as NEPA in general, though… What I love about our area is that everyone feels connected. We all grew up pretty much in the same way. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in Wilkes-Barre or Pittston or Plymouth. In high school, you were rivals and all that, but outside of school it didn’t really exist. Like, if I was out of town and ran into someone from NEPA, it was basically like we went to school together – like we kind of knew each other even though we didn’t. Everyone from here is connected, in a way, by that similar type of upbringing. You can run into someone on the other side of the world and when they tell you they’re from Kingston or Hazleton, there’s that immediate connection. We grew up eating the same food, going to the same fairs and bazaars, or Knoebels, of course. I just don’t know if other places are like that.

As for Oakley, she loves the fact that there are so many places to hike in NEPA. That’s one of her favorite things to do. She loves all the great places to swim. And she really loves that the people here are very dog-friendly and dog-aware. Everywhere she goes, people are always happy to see her.

What’s your favorite NEPA restaurant?

Easy. Philadelphia Subs in the Heights (Wilkes-Barre). I grew up on it. I get it every time I’m back in town. Oakley, on the other hand, is all about pizza and she loves Angelo’s. She is never so patient as when she’s waiting for that crust. So, yeah, Angelo’s pizza and Philadelphia Subs. They’re the best around. There’s just no denying it.

What’s your favorite thing to do in NEPA?

Well, basically over the past five years, because of Oakley, everything’s pretty much revolved around things that we can do with her. While we didn’t grow up as big hikers, now that’s what we do. It keeps her in good shape and gets us all out in the outdoors. So, we hike a lot. In the wintertime, we do a lot of snowshoeing. During the summer, we’re always in the water. Oakley swims 2 – 3 times a week at minimum. We spend most of our free time at Tobyhanna State Park – that’s closest to us. We work closely with DCNR out there. They let us set up a training area. And we’re usually out there with 2 or 3 other dogs that we train. If we’re not training, we’re out adventuring, like riding the train down in Jim Thorpe. Basically, anything we can find in NEPA that we think Oakley will enjoy; we’re doing it.

What’s next for you?

I want to continue to train and grow our organization – The American Academy of Canine Water Rescue. I would like to grow it large enough to a point where it’s normal to see a lifeguard with a dog – whether that’s at a local state park or a beach in New Jersey. In Italy, they have 400 lifeguard and dog teams. So, if you’re on a beach in Rome or anywhere north of that, you’re going to see lifeguards with dogs right beside them. And I’d like to see us get to that point here. There’s a huge lifeguard shortage nationally. A lot of local pools don’t even open sometimes because they don’t have any lifeguards. None of the state parks have lifeguards on their beaches anymore. I don’t agree with that. I’d like to see us at a place where specifically-trained volunteers like myself and Oakley can donate their time guarding beaches and keeping people safe. I feel like, right now, I can field four or five teams locally that can provide that service. And I’d love to say that, someday, we can have enough teams to cover all of the state parks in our area.

Oakley’s got the same goal. And as she gets older and starts to slow down, she’ll continue to be an instructor dog. She also has a future in safety awareness. Think of it like our old high school assemblies. If I go out there on stage by myself like “Hey guys! Who wants to learn about water safety?” Nobody’s paying attention. If I bring Oakley out and she does a few tricks and helps me demonstrate water safety, I’m going to have at least three quarters of the room’s attention. And if we’re at an elementary school, the place is going nuts and I have everyone’s attention.

Where do you see NEPA heading in the future?

I think NEPA is definitely growing, and I feel like it’s on this awesome rebound. I spend a lot of time between Wilkes-Barre and Pittston and I have to say that I’m always impressed with the revitalization that’s going on in Pittston. There are so many new stores and events going on. Like, they have something on the schedule every week, and it’s always free and open to the public. Wilkes-Barre is right there, too. There’s something going on right here in Kirby Park like every weekend in the summer. It’s great to see.

Why NEPA?

The people. It’s a very simple answer. It’s the people. I’ve always felt welcome here. I’ve always felt like people listened to my ideas – good or bad (laughs). Someone was always willing to listen and hear you out – whether it was my parents, siblings or people I’ve worked with. In a lot of places, with a lot of people, if I told them that, at 40, I was going to become a lifeguard and train a dog to jump out of helicopters with me, they might have told me I was crazy. Here, with my friends and family, they just said, “go for it.” Everyone I know has been supportive. Right up into all these local communities that I support. Everywhere I go in NEPA, people know me and they stop to say hello. And if they don’t know me, they know Oakley. And, still, they stop to say hello and introduce themselves. You can’t beat that.

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