BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Governor Livingston graduate and former Berkeley Heights resident, Donnie Kanter Winokur, is thrilled to be heading back to Berkeley Heights next week to see old friends and sign copies of her new book, “Chancer-How One Good Boy Saved Another,” a touching memoir that was published in 2017.
In her years at Governor Livingston, Winokur was deeply involved in the drama department and performed in many GL productions, including Oklahoma! and How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, “Most of my world was in theater, even previous to GL. It was also in Chorale and that was so much fun and meaningful on so many levels, I absolutely loved high school,” recalled Winokur.
She went on to study drama at Catholic University, but ultimately got her degree in Psychology from Emory University. Winokur believes her studies helped her guide her family through the long struggle of understanding their son, Iyal’s, diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS is the most severe form of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). She focused on trying to understand his disorder, “It was really important to understand what was behind the behavior, the meltdowns and Iyal’s inability to grasp abstract things like time. Iyal lived in the present, because he wasn’t able to anticipate the future, nor remember what happened beforehand. So, in a lot of ways for Iyal, it was a new day, but it was the same day.”
It was during her anguish, struggling through a labyrinth of medications, therapies and interventions that she decided to try something truly innovative, she decided to take a chance on a therapy in the form of a ninety pound golden retriever named Chancer. Chancer became the first certified FASD assistance dog in the world and he furthermore became her son Iyal’s salvation. Chancer couldn’t cure her son’s illness, but he could help regulate behavior that Iyal could not regulate himself thereby helping him to navigate the world around him.
This is not the first book for Winokur, who graduated from Governor Livingston High School in 1974, but it is her first memoir. She wrote and co-wrote two award-winning children’s books (one with her daughter Morasha) before sitting down to write her poignant story. In her memoir, she describes her journey from adopting her two children from Russia, eventually facing a devastating diagnosis of FAS when her son Iyal was four years old, and ultimately to finding her way to becoming a champion for Iyal and for those who suffer from invisible developmental disabilities.
“Chancer was written for a couple of reasons,” said Winokur, talking from her home in Roswell, Georgia, “Partly because people with invisible disabilities are often judged in a negative way because people can’t see what’s going on. Their behavior is different and it tends to make others uncomfortable.” Winokur quickly realized that Chancer was her son’s ticket to acceptance, “Chancer was a neon sign for us, strangers and friends could see we were on it, they had a visual cue that we got it, that we were dealing with the problem.” Chancer, a gorgeous golden, also brought Iyal into social circles simply by his presence beside him.
Talk to Winokur now and you won’t hear a hint of the world-weariness you might have expected. She is optimistic and focused on what’s next; for her kids and for her cause. “I think it’s essential to remove the shame and the blame that’s associated with FAS. The stigma is what prevents women from going to get prenatal care and for after they have the baby. There is so much negativity around it; they don’t want to get help,” she said. Because of Winokur, there is a new kind of help, ”Service dogs can help with the behavioral assistance, the unique training that Chancer had.” She is also thrilled with Iyal’s progress, “Now, he has become a really caring person.” Iyal creates videos on his phone and uses software on his computer to do editing, sound effects and voice-overs. “He’s now writing, directing and producing videos and uploading to his YouTube channel, it’s incredibly heartening that he could have a career in film and that’s where were headed with him,” said Winokur. Winokur is headed towards helping to shift public misconceptions about FASD and other invisible disabilities.
At the books release, “Chancer- How One Good Boy Saved Another” was an Amazon number one bestseller in the special needs category. Winokur will be at Delicious Heights on January 18th at 7 p.m. to sign copies of her book. She will also be featured at Short Stories Bookshop and Community Hub in Madison on January 17th at 7 p.m.