They are the rock stars of volunteers at Jefferson Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas. Kids call out their names when they walk down the halls. Hands reach out to touch them.
Dare, Katy and Allie are therapy dogs that visit the school every week. Sally Wilson brings Dare, a black Labrador, on Wednesdays, and Jeanne Forbes brings Katy and Allie, mini Labradoodles, on Thursdays. Sally and Jeanne, who are members of East Heights UMC, gather with their dogs and the kids in a classroom at lunchtime. After the kids eat lunch, they hug and play with the dogs, roll on the floor with them and get silly together.
Kristin Gayden, the school counselor, is thankful for this new East Heights’ ministry with Jefferson. “It’s a great resource for the kids,” she said. “A lot of them don’t get the opportunity to see or pet a dog.”
The kids, who named themselves the Paws Group in honor of their four-footed friends, are quick to tell you what they love about the dogs.
Kennya likes their “bushy fur” and Mario thinks they’re pretty smart. “They’re cute and like to play,” Leslie said. “I like to pet Dare,” Scott said. “He’s soft.”
Gayden sees many benefits to having the dogs interact with the kids. “The dogs help them deal with a bad morning or a conflict,” she said, explaining that the dogs help the kids calm themselves.The children also share their secrets with the dogs. Some of the children have dealt with major disappointments and trauma and they feel safe telling the dogs what they are feeling. “They come in feeling not so good and leave feeling better,” Gayden said.
Forbes sees this, too. “I enjoy seeing how the dogs can change people’s lives,” she said. “They are more relaxed.”
Visiting Jefferson with the dogs is also meaningful for Forbes. “The kids are always so appreciative of the dogs,” she said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Wilson, a retired special education teacher, said she saw first-hand the benefits of having a therapy dog in the classroom while she was teaching. “The dog was able to provide comfort and support to many children where possibly a person would not be able to do so,” Wilson said. “For some reason, the students could easily relate to the dog. When the Jefferson counselor approached me about starting this program, I was thrilled to have the chance to share Dare with these children.”
Carolyn Bryant also visits with her therapy dog, when Wilson or Forbes can’t come.
Story and photos by Kathy Lefler, director of communications for East Heights UMC in Wichita, Kansas