Centertown Resident is a Dogged Entrepreneur

Eah Housing, Barbara Sterdt hugs Wrena, her service dog, during a visit to the Northgate Mall in San Rafael. Barbara Sterdt hugs Wrena, her service dog, during a visit to the Northgate Mall in San Rafael.

San Rafael, California, February 22, 2017 - Barbara Sterdt, a 17-year resident of the EAH Housing Centertown Apartments in San Rafael, Calif., hasn’t let life in a wheelchair slow her down. A former accounting assistant and invoicing clerk, Barbara, 48, started up and runs PlayTug, a small business selling braided dog toys she makes by hand.

Barbara learned how to braid fleece fabric into dog toys in 2015 during an intense two-week training she completed before receiving her second service dog, Wrena. She enjoyed making the toys so much she decided to make it a business. Impressed by her Santa Rosa-based service dog provider, Canine Companions For Independence, she donates 10 percent of online sales to the nonprofit.

Barbara, who has mild cerebral palsy, has also been impressed by the support EAH Housing has provided over the years. Workers have lowered kitchen counters to enable her to cook from her wheelchair. They also installed special low-rise carpeting to make wheelchair movement easier in her one-bedroom unit.

“Living here in this first-floor apartment has allowed me to live independently, with a rent I can afford,” she said. “I’m really grateful to EAH.” Through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, EAH Housing is able to make Centertown’s 60 units available to eligible low-income tenants.

Barbara also gets 40 hours a week of help from Brijanna Torres-Winfrey, a home-care provider who has been studying to become a nurse. Another independent living aid: Sterdt’s 2007 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, which has hand controls and a roof-top wheelchair carrier.

But to stay self-sufficient, Barbara must also stay physically fit. To keep a healthy weight, she goes to the local YMCA pool three days a week for 45-minute sessions that include water walking with ankle weights and a half mile of lap swimming.

Barbara’s canine companion, Wrena, also helps out. She retrieves dropped keys and opens shopping mall doors by pushing their oversized buttons. Like other trained service dogs, Wrena can also pull open doors and drawers using a PlayTug or similar device, showing off PlayTug’s ability to be a tool, not just a toy.

A service dog owner first connects the loop at one end of a PlayTug or similar tool to a drawer pull or refrigerator door. Then the owner instructs their dog to “Tug.” Bingo, it opens.

Naturally, as an affectionate Labrador-golden retriever mix, Wrena also offers her owner love and companionship. “Wrena’s my heart,” said Barbara. “She’s my medicine. She’s the reason behind PlayTug.”

PlayTugs come in three widths, two lengths and a variety of colors. They’re available online and in six stores in Marin and Sonoma counties.

Please visit www.playtug.org to learn more about PlayTug.