James Charles Branch IV and his dog Charisma found each other eight years ago.
The Navy veteran had been prescribed a service dog by a doctor following painful back surgery and an anxiety attack. He tells the story in detail of how the two met when she was a puppy.
“I saw these two cats in a little cage. Mind you, I thought they were both cats. Later it turns out one of them is actually a pit bull terrier. They were huddled up together, cat and dog. When he brought her out for me to see her, she wouldn’t stop licking my chin.”
Ever since, the dog hasn’t left his side.
“Charisma’s been very helpful for me. When I’m a little upset or I feel a little estranged from myself, she’ll come beside me. It’s like instinct. She’ll come right to me,” he said.
Branch has had a colorful life, and a difficult one. In conversation, he talks about writing poetry in New York; growing up in an abusive household; seeing the world during 12 years in the Navy; painting using “the soft quietness” of pastels; losing a son.
“I was always an artist and I think everybody’s an artist to some degree, even if it’s in work, whether it be white or blue color,” he says.
When he came to Catholic Charities in January 2015, he had just moved to New Jersey from New York. He was homeless, not for the first time, living between friends’ homes or out of his car. Charisma was always by his side.
Through Catholic Charities’ Veteran Services program he was assigned a case manager, Andrew Valsamis. He started making employment connections for Branch and together they began searching for affordable housing options.
But a few obstacles lay in the way of finding Branch permanent housing. Because of a billing error from a previous lease, Branch’s credit had plummeted. Valsamis assisted him through the lengthy and complicated process of getting his credit corrected.
Then there was his dog. Charisma might have been small when the pair first met, but she is no puppy anymore. The 58-pound pit bull didn’t meet the weight requirements for most apartments, which have stipulations limiting the sizes of dogs, usually under 30 pounds.
“Then he told me she was actually a service dog. If you have service dog paperwork, no matter how big she is, places can’t deny you,” Valsamis said.
When Branch made the move to New York, his service dog paperwork had expired and he didn’t have the money to re-register.
Using donations from a range of VFWs and other local veterans organizations, Catholic Charities’ program pulled together the $150 to get Charisma registered as a service dog not only in New Jersey, but throughout the entire country.
Just in time, too, because in May, Branch made the decision to move to Arizona to be closer to his Cherokee roots. Now, wherever he moves, he won’t have to worry about finding housing with his dog, Valsamis said.
“I think Mr. Branch now sees that there’s a lot out there for him, that there are people who want to help, wherever he goes,” said Mark Taylor, director of Veteran Services at Catholic Charities.
“When we see success in a case like that of Mr. Branch, it means a lot to me,” Taylor said. “As a veteran myself, I know what they’ve been through. Some of us are just a bad situation or a lack of support away from being in the same place. To be able to give back and to see some of their wounds heal – it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Catholic Charities is covering Branch’s moving costs to Arizona: a U-Haul truck for his possessions and a hitch for towing his car.
“Catholic Charities has helped a lot in the sense of being a voice,” Branch said. “I’m always grateful when people reach out. If they put a hand out, that means I’m not falling off the cliff. At least I’m holding a hand.”
To learn more about Catholic Charities’ Veteran Services program, visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/Veteran-Services.