You can teach an old dog new tricks. You can also train an abused dog to “teach” abused and neglected children. Healing Species is proof positive.
Founded by Orangeburg-native Cheri Brown Thompson, Healing Species was born out of her discovery – as a new attorney in the late 1990s – that there was a link between violence toward animals and violent crime in society. She gave up practicing law to write the first-ever animal-assisted violence-prevention curriculum to be endorsed by a state board of education.
The curriculum works this way: someone from the organization’s trained professional staff of nine takes rescued dogs into classrooms once a week for 11 to 13 weeks to teach students lessons in compassion, healing, empowerment and respect. While interacting with the dogs on a variety of levels, students might learn their value, how to trust and how to consider the feelings of others, as well as necessary life skills.
“These formerly abused, neglected dogs bring the lesson’s principles and illustrations to life,” says Adele Little, director and lead instructor at Healing Species. “For instance, we talk about the three steps to Keeping Your Heart in the first lesson. As we hold up a bowl of water poured for our canine assistant, we ask: ‘Does giving water to Gravey count as giving love? Does petting her count as giving love? Yes! You matter to others and each little thing you do for animals and people makes you stronger.’”
She adds, “The dogs have a way of reaching a child’s heart and mind that humans do not have. If the class gets too loud and rowdy, we can instantly help the students connect the reason for being quiet to empathy. We would say, for example: ‘Remember, Gravey’s ears are 1,000 times more sensitive than ours and it hurts her ears when we are loud. Do you see how she came over to the corner? Let’s keep it down!’ And they do!”
Barbara Martin, on staff at Eau Claire High School, explained in a recent letter to Healing Species the effect the dogs have on children at her school: “The combination of constant access to loving, affectionate dogs while interacting in lessons that introduce students to the concepts of selflessness, self-awareness and self-control is a perfect pairing for our population,” she writes. “Over the years, we have seen our toughest, most emotionally detached students eventually melt while stroking your wonderful, furry co-workers.”
After implementing the program in one school, one of the Healing Species workers received a hand-written note from a student. It read: “Thank u for all you have done for me. Please keep this wonder job u have because I know there is someone waiting on you to save another living soul just like you did to me.”
A student at Gilbert Elementary School with Turbo, a Healing Species therapy dog
This past fall, when a boy acted out so much he turned his desk over and had to be put into an adjacent room, Amber, a yellow Labrador retriever mix began pulling on her leash until she was allowed to go into the room to the boy. He was crying and screaming, but when the she walked into the room and up to him, he stopped and put his arms around her.
“It was amazing,” says Adele. “Amber had done what none of the adults present had been able to do. She calmed down a very upset little boy.”
Says Cheri, “The program empowers children living in abusive situations to learn their appropriate and safe rights and how to locate help if help is needed. They also go on to become a voice for others who are voiceless: a sibling, a friend or an animal.”
According to Adele, the organization acts as caretakers or “guardians” – as Cheri likes to refer to their role – to approximately 14 dogs who assist in teaching students in South Carolina classrooms. So far, more than 11,000 students have learned the principles and lessons of the program since Healing Species’ inception in 2000. The organization has garnered state and national attention, and in 2007, Cheri won Traditional Home Magazine’s “Classic Women Award” for women who make a difference.
Even though Healing Species was founded in South Carolina and primarily serves schools in South Carolina, it is growing to include four active satellite chapters in other states and even in New Zealand. The ultimate goal is to make the program available in every school district across the United States.
“Our most excruciating work,” says Cheri, “is deciding each year what school receives our program, and which schools we cut out due to funding. I personally work for no pay. But to run the corporation professionally, I need professionals who need to work and want to work.”
The standard fee for the program is approximately $12,000 per semester per school for up to 250 students (or 12 classes). This fee covers the program, the instructors, the curriculum materials, travel expenses, dog care and office expenses. Many schools pull funding for Healing Species from a variety of resources, including federal funding, Parent-Teacher Associations and corporate grants. Healing Species will assist in grant-writing and securing funds.
Instructors are college graduates trained through shadowing, team teaching and observing. Some of the instructors have backgrounds in social work or teaching, but Cheri points out that some instructors just naturally have a bent toward teaching and interacting with children and animals.
Healing Species also works outside the classroom. This spring, in fact, dogs were taken to Gonzales Gardens, a housing project in Columbia, to work with children in order to help them overcome violence, bullying, neglect, abuse, crime and anger. “Through the use of rehabilitated dogs, Healing Species ministered to the hearts of some of our hurting children,” says Michelle James, director of Prosperity Project, a tutoring and mentoring ministry in Gonzales Gardens.
Cheri, who along with her husband adopted two brothers she met while teaching Healing Species in their school, has a heart for children and animals. “My greatest reward is seeing children of any socio-economic level understand that they matter … that they have something to contribute, and that someone sees them and cares.”
For more information about Healing Species, or to make donations from an individual or corporate level, visit www.healingspecies.org.