Sean Summer overcomes disabilities to run his own business
By Emily ford
SALISBURY - Sean Summer doesn't pay attention to the stares.
Physically disabled from birth, Sean suffers from Goldenhar syndrome, a rare congenital defect that causes deformities of the face.
In his 28 years, Sean has endured more than 20 surgeries and months in the hospital. He speaks with an impediment and walks with a limp. He hears only with the help of a high-tech aid anchored in his skull.
Yet Sean refuses to let his disabilities slow him down.
Mentally sharp and determined to live independently, the Concord native has opened a dog and cat boarding facility at 2235 Statesville Boulevard in Salisbury called Animal House.
Business has tripled since he opened the kennel in 2010, as Sean parlays his lifelong love for dogs and cats into a career that relies on his qualities of patience and perseverance, regardless of craniofacial features.
"The animals, they don't care what you look like," Sean said. "As long as you take care of them and play with them, they'll love you."
Scott Padgett, now mayor of Concord, remembers Sean well as a student at Beverly Hills Elementary School.
As principal of the school in Concord, Padgett didn't have to make a single accommodation for Sean, despite the disabilities. He wanted to be treated like any other kid.
"He is one of the most courageous young men I have ever known," Padgett said. "He is extremely determined and has a mind of his own."
Throughout his 30-year career in education, Padgett said he never met a student who faced more challenges than Sean.
While Sean refused to be confined by what others saw as his limitations, many days were difficult as he dealt with physical issues that accompanied his unique situation.
"It wasn't just smooth sailing," Padgett said. "Every day was a challenge for him."
Despite his fierce independence, Sean has had a discreet but crucial ally throughout his life - brother Chris Summer, two years older.
"You talk about a fine human being," Padgett said. "Sean's brother was the perfect balance for keeping an eye on Sean and making sure he was OK without being overprotective."
Chris and Sean remain best friends, and Chris, an accountant, keeps the books for Animal House.
Padgett said he's sure no one at Beverly Hills Elementary School has forgotten Sean, or ever will.
"He made all of us who knew him better people, and he made our school a better school," Padgett said. "By the other students and parents getting to know Sean and realizing his challenges but appreciating his courage and his personality, it really enriched all of us."
Sean was two months premature. Kathy and Douglas Summer found out a few weeks before he was born that something was wrong, but doctors didn't know the extent of Sean's problems until he was born.
Since then, Sean has endured procedures to correct deformities of the face, ears, legs, bladder and more. Infections followed several surgeries.
His health has improved significantly, Kathy said, and physicians believe he will not have to undergo another surgery for an extended period.
Kathy and Douglas saw their baby boy as a gift from God. From the time Sean was born, they treated him just like his older brother.
"My husband and I decided that he was going to make it in the world, and we were going to do whatever we needed to do to make that happen," Kathy said.
It wasn't easy. Operations, speech therapy, occupational therapy, doctor's visits and more consumed much of Kathy's time.
She sought out the best care available for Sean from a young age, including the N.C. School for the Deaf, which was housed at St. John's Lutheran Church in Salisbury.
There, teacher Lindsay Wineka and others cared for the profoundly disabled preschooler.
Sean had many medical and physical issues, Wineka said, and his mother was his staunchest advocate.
"She was relentless in her pursuit of resources for him," Wineka said.
More than 25 years after she first cared for Sean, Wineka said his ability to live independently and run his own business is a testament to both mother and son.
"It's astounding how far he has come and the challenges that he has overcome," she said. "As proactive as his mother was, that's probably exactly why he's where he is today."g g gKathy and Douglas never thought Sean would attend college.
They knew he would.
"For both children, we decided they would go to college," Kathy said. "They grew up knowing that was the expectation."
Despite his disabilities, Sean was popular in school and earned an Eagle Scout. His sense of humor won him many friends, although he struggled academically.
"Sean has the best personality ever," Kathy said. "You would think that someone who has been through as much as he has been through would be shy and introverted and not as capable.
"Sean deals with more challenges in one day than most of us do in a lifetime. He's my hero because he doesn't let that hold him back. He never did."
Sean completed high school in four years, even though he had an operation every summer. He attended Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, then transferred to Pfeiffer University, where he graduated with a bachelor's history degree.
"Not a very marketable degree," he said.
Yet Sean entered the job market, interviewing for position after position. No offers.
Sean's endurance doesn't allow him to work a typical eight- or 10-hour shift. He attended a seminar on small businesses, and the idea for a dog kennel began to come together.
To test the waters, he and his parents opened Animal House in September 2010 on Jake Alexander Boulevard.
"Before we bought any land or put a lot into it, we wanted to see how he would do," Kathy said. "He never missed a day of work."
In 2011, Sean's parents bought the house on Statesville Boulevard. They spent months renovating the property, turning the large garage into a kennel and fencing in two exercise areas.
Douglas, a director at Presbyterian Hospital, led the effort to put in new wiring, plumbing and a roof. They stripped the floors and installed new carpet.
Sean lives on site and works a split shift, four hours in the morning and four in the evening, giving him time to rest in the middle of the day. The kennel is open seven days a week.
He wrote the business plan and designed the facility to meet his needs, as well as those of his customers.
Kathy had worked for 14 years managing the hospice unit at Rowan Regional Medical Center. She left and took a less demanding job working three days a week for another hospice organization in Charlotte so she could help at Animal House, where she relieves Sean one and a half days a week.
"Sean was so busy, and I knew I didn't want to look back in two years and see this fail," Kathy said.
Sean has hired part-time help with grooming and office work. He expects to take over the mortgage payments in another year and wants to add a 10th dog kennel.
He's taken online courses and has a few certifications, but for the most part, Sean has learned to care for dogs on his own.
"On one hand, they're fun to play with," he said. "But there are other times when they can be a challenge, and you have to work around the dog to get the dog to do what you want it to do."
Sean has several customers who have boarded their beloved pets with him for more than a year.
"Sean is really good with Pepper," said Denise Dlouhy, who brings her dog to Animal House every week for daycare. "He works very well with me and offers great flexibility."
Sean had six ear reconstruction surgeries as a teenager, all done in California.
During those cross-country flights, Sean fell in love with flying.
Now, he's working to earn his pilot's license at the Rowan County Airport.
"It was a big shock for me was when he told me he wanted to fly a plane," Kathy said. "I said, 'Sean Summer, have I not been through enough with you?' "
As his mom tells the story, Sean can't help but laugh. His parents have only themselves to blame for his sky-high aspirations.
"They never treated me any differently," he said. "They never coddled or babied me."
Recently, after many years apart, Scott Padgett ran into Sean while he was driving the Pet Taxi, a service he offers for Animal House customers who need a lift for Fido. Padgett said he wasn't surprised to learn Sean has his own business and a driver's license. His accomplishments are a testament to not only his determination but his family's willingness to step back and allow him to make mistakes.
"They knew when to let him face things on his own," Padgett said.
Kathy has simple advice for parents raising a handicapped child.
"Never give up on your child, and stay close to God because you are going to need a lot of help," she said.
Most importantly, Sean said, don't shelter them.
"My parents wanted for me what all parents want for their child - to be successful and happy," he said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.