Shelter Buddies Reading Program gets back on track

David Sowders/Arizona Silver Belt

What do dogs, kids, and books have to do with our new post-Covid normal? Besides the reopening of businesses and schools, a safer world also means the launch of a new program sidelined by the pandemic; the Shelter Buddies Reading Program (SBRP).

John Loos, manager of the dog rescue program for the High Desert Humane Society, participated in the initial SBRP launch in May and reports, “It was a lot of fun! The kids had to talk about each and every dog they’d ever had, then came out in groups of two or three to read to our dog.”

Kids reading to dogs? What’s going on?

In 2019, the United Fund’s “Year of YES!” program gave $10,000 to programs willing to collaborate across at least three agencies to complete a cooperative project by Dec. 31, 2020. The SBRP was proposed as an innovative six-month pilot program where Cobre Valley Youth Club (CVYC) kids read to High Desert Humane Society (HDHS) animals using Friends of the Globe Public Library (FGPL) books. This program advances the primary program priorities of each of the three partnering agencies.

CVYC is committed to serving kids and preparing them for successful futures, and they report challenges with the reading level and acquisition of literacy tools for many of their club participants. The children reading to the dogs and cats benefit by improving their literacy skills, overcoming reading anxiety by performing in front of a non-judgmental listener, improving their empathy and gentleness through interaction with animals, and gaining self-esteem by knowing they are helping animals in need get adopted.

HDHS is committed to finding homes for unwanted and abandoned pets, and they report having too many dogs and cats in their shelters and needing to get animals adopted as soon as possible to open up more spaces. The animals grow calmer when read to, gain exposure to novel people (particularly children), gain socialization skills, are less lonely and learn people can be safe and nurturing, which will give them traits that make them more adoptable.

FGPL is committed to promoting literacy and supporting programming for all patrons of the library, and they want to connect with youth who struggle with reading and may not currently be accessing library resources. Through the SBRP, the FGPL connects with kids and families to support and help these young readers gain a positive literacy experience, as well as awareness of library resources.

When the $10,000 grant was received in 2019, it was split evenly between the three agencies to buy supplies to support the program’s success. Purchases were completed, parental permissions were obtained for the participating children, pre-program reading assessments were completed to allow efficacy testing of the program, administrative details were in place and the initial launch was scheduled for March 13, 2020.

The very week Covid shut down everything.

Now, as the program is revisited, the world is not the same and neither are the three partners. Major staff and volunteer turnover occurred at all the agencies. The CVYC van was out of commission and there was no way to bring the children to the HDHS, a foundational design of the program. The participating children are different and the old reading assessments can no longer be used. Robin Wurst, past-president of the FGPL Board, who was in charge of implementing the program in 2020, stated, “It’s been one frustration after another.”

Regardless of the challenges, the three partners wanted to try to launch the program, even without a van for the children. To compensate, the HDHS decided to go to the CVYC instead.

Unfortunately, the HDHS is operating now with fewer volunteers and has to close the thrift store (their primary program funding) to take an animal off site. Plus, taking an animal off site was never the plan. By going off site, Loos says he had one dog with small groups of children for two hours. This is too long to expect a dog to focus on new stimuli and doesn’t allow the nonjudgmental interaction between one child and one animal that the struggling readers need to not be embarrassed in front of their friends.

Amazingly, even with all the bumps experienced so far, the program is still making a difference.

Carmen Casillas, president of the CVYC Board of Directors, said, “I am amazed how powerful this program is. It totally blew me away.” She relayed how one hyperactive six-year-old was able to focus for the first time and remained on task with the dog. “All of a sudden, something clicked for her.”

And she’s not the only one.

The children practice reading to be ready for the animals and now kids who formerly did not read are seeking out books. Casillas said, “Because of this program, another little girl now gets a book and comes into the office to read on her own.”

Fortunately, the CVYC van is finally fixed and will soon be ready to transport children to the HDHS. Loos said, “That will make it a lot easier both for us and for the kids because they’ll be able to be one-on-one with the animals.” Casillas is committed to see this happen.

Wurst said, “I think the program as it was originally envisioned should happen. It’s really good.”

Loos agreed. “I think it’s a great way to help kids get out of their shell and be more comfortable expressing themselves.”

Help is needed to run the SBRP well. Wurst says, “New assessment will need to be done on the new children in the program.” Loos highlights the need for volunteers to sanitize before SBRP visits and help with the animals during the visits.

Regardless of the challenges, the SBRP will go on. “I think it’s a really good program to do,” summarized Loos.

“It just works,” said Casillas. “The kids love the animals. It makes them a different person.”

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