Go Botanicals Gives Back Through Therapy Dog Volunteer Work

Counseling Uvalde families is a long-term commitment — and dogs have helped

By , Staff writer San Antonio Express News


UVALDE — Dark scribbles.

That’s what students in Uvalde were drawing in the days immediately after the shooting at Robb Elementary School that killed 19 kids and two teachers, said Ayla Rahmberg, a San Antonio-based volunteer with Canines for Christ.

“The pictures were so sad,” Rahmberg said. “The feelings they were drawing were really heart-wrenching.”

But over the summer, the national organization provided therapy dogs to accompany or just interact for a few minutes with hundreds of kids. The dogs were with them at funerals, community events and vacation Bible school, a summer church tradition.

The kids are back in school and their sketches have become brighter, Rahmberg said.

“There were pictures that we saw of kids drawing a school with a dog and a heart around it,” she said. “That is new. That was a change. We are watching healing. That progress is happening. It’s slow. The grief is not going to ever go away, but the process is hopefully in motion.”

Multiple organizations have helped Uvalde residents deal with loss and grief, in and out of school settings, with many trying to hire mental health professionals from a supply of applicants that can’t keep up with demand.

That leaves animals to play a central role. Parents have purchased puppies for their kids. The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District, which started classes Tuesday, has therapy dogs for its students.

Sacred Heart Uvalde, the local Catholic school that doubled its enrollment after the tragedy, has had dogs on campus almost every day since its semester began Aug. 15. Canines for Christ will supply them once a week for the rest of the year.

“Something about petting a dog. People start petting a dog and it just brings down the defenses,” said Jill Powell, another volunteer and the organization’s director of membership. “It helps you feel better and more relaxed and helps you start talking.”

Sacred Heart has a designated play therapy room where counselors meet with students in groups to share strategies for coping with mental health struggles or for one-on-one chats.

“The dogs are like counselors with fur,” said Joseph Olan, the school’s principal.

Students can come into the room at any point during the school day to play with the dogs. Sometimes counselors will specifically request a dog to join a session.

“Dogs create a comfort like no other,” Rahmberg said. “Even if the kids don’t want to talk, they can pet them, or lay on them, or hug them.”

Uvalde CISD will have at least two comfort dogs on each campus every day for the first three weeks of school, along with a handful of changes being made to support the still grieving community.

The district previously had five licensed clinicians serving its eight campuses, along with one academic school counselor on each campus. This year, it has added two more licensed clinicians and is trying to hire a third.

“It’s been a challenge because all of the agencies in our area are also looking to hire,” said Nichole Henderson, the district’s lead family and student support counselor. “We are all going after the same applicants.”

After their first week, students seem to be adjusting, smiling and “thrilled to see their friends and their teachers,” she said.

But more difficult times might lie ahead, Henderson warned.

“The need for support is going to be long term and we are adjusting based on what we are seeing,” Henderson said. “It is still the first week of school. I think the excitement has been a nice distraction for students; but we know that with grief and trauma, those times of the years that create stress are around the holidays, anniversaries, birthdays.

“It’s just going to take time.”

Canines for Christ Therapy Dog

Children pet Zoey, a Canines for Christ therapy dog as she walks in a local 5K race in San Antonio on Saturday. The organization has supplied therapy dogs to kids in Uvalde all summer. Sam Owens, San Antonio Express-News/Staff photographer.

LISTEN: Ayla speaks on God & Our Dogs Podcast about therapy dog volunteer work over the last 9 years with her dog, Zoey. Episode #314.

Help from Texas

Communities in Schools, an organization that supplements counselors at school districts throughout Texas, including 12 districts in and around San Antonio, is providing three counselors in Uvalde this school year. The goal is to provide seven, but that, too, will depend on hiring.

Working with the Texas Education Agency’s Region 20 Service Center, the nonprofit brought in counselors over the summer to help the whole town, with more than 200 counselors from San Antonio school districts on rotating shifts.

Region 20 brought three counselors to Uvalde’s public schools last week, and in the fall “we will hopefully be able to identify any gaps in resources and connect to any of those resources that do exist,” said Jessica Weaver, the Communities in Schools’ CEO.

The Uvalde school district is also partnering with Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine, or TCHATT, to connect even more students to counselors and nurses, utilizing the Rhithm App, which provides a daily check-in tool for students to log how they are feeling each day.

Uvalde teachers have received special training to support students affected by trauma and grief.

Northside ISD, San Antonio’s largest school district, is sharing classroom guidance lessons with the Uvalde CISD counselors, to augment their options in teaching students how to express and ask for what they need, said Mary Libby, Northside’s director of counseling.

“Maybe they need to go see a counselor or maybe they need to just cry,” Libby said.

The lessons also help students with personal relationships, health and safety, and college and career readiness. Libby hopes the new school year brings students much needed regularity to help them through such an unusual and difficult time.

“Routine is so important,” Libby said. “It isn’t about rigidity, that is very different. But when I know what to expect every day, that just allows me to feel a little safer, a little more secure in what the day is going to bring. Predictability, breathing, mindfulness and regulation is just what helps us get through the day and allows the brain to do what it needs to do.”

Several organizations are providing mental health resources outside of school.

The Children’s Bereavement Center has child grief counselors and is also working in the schools, training some of the teachers and running support groups for teachers and parents, said Marian Sokol, its executive director. It has six counselors there from throughout Texas.

“We are trying our best to get counselors from the area, but obviously it is very difficult because the school district is hiring,” Sokol said.

Starting in October at Uvalde’s public library, the center will be hosting “Smart and Art Saturdays” to bring learning and art experiences to the community on the second Saturday of each month.

“We are just trying to have a long-term presence in the community,” Sokol said.

She didn’t see an immediate rush of families to get counseling, but a lot of people asked what was available and many simply wanted to know if their child’s behavior was normal.

“There is a high level of anxiety. They have not done this before. That community has not lived through this kind of an experience,” Sokol said. “Right now, many are anxious for their child and they are protective of their child.”

Families can also visit the Uvalde Resilience Center to get connected to counselors supplied by the Ecumenical Center in San Antonio, as well as other resources like food assistance, the Salvation Army, Red Cross, legal aid and the regional Workforce Solutions office.

The Ecumenical Center is also looking to hire more counselors.

Family Service, a nonprofit that has served Uvalde for 25 years, has increased its number of dedicated counselors, who can go wherever a family needs them to be, including in their homes or schools.

“We realize for most of these folks that telehealth is not an answer for them, given the intensity of tragedy,” said Mary Garr, its president. “We see the value of the face to face.”

All the Family Service counselors are bilingual.

“When you are dealing with a tragedy, sometimes you might say something in one language and some things in another language,” Garr said. “That is how you might process emotion.”

Right now, families have to get used to going back into school buildings, a tough time, she said.

“We are still recovering from learning loss and social emotional development loss because of the pandemic,” Garr said. “We want to make sure these students can still thrive and understand it is OK to smile even if you lost your best friend or cousin or sibling.

“Another way to honor those that they have loved and lost is to keep moving forward and create positive happy moments and community moments.”


Link to Original Article here

Claire Bryan joined the Express-News education team in August 2021. She previously worked as a business reporter at the Albany Times Union and an education reporter at Chalkbeat. She began her journalism career as a fact-checker for Condé Nast’s portfolio of magazines and Harper's Magazine. Claire completed her master's degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Stabile Investigative Reporting fellow. She is originally from San Diego.

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