Helping Paws Healing Hearts unites therapy dogs and kids
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG, Banner Staff Writer
Jun 19, 2013 | 1516 views | 0 0 comments | 78 78 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The most recent meeting of the Bradley County Interagency Council went to the dogs.

Or, rather, it went to just one dog named Addie, who sat patiently by the feet of her owner, Amy Hicks, the founder of a local nonprofit organization called Helping Paws Healing Hearts.

Hicks, who has worked in the Cleveland City School system as a counselor for 17 years, spoke of how she found out that animals had a way of making a child talk about a traumatic situation in a way that people could not, and stressed the importance of animal-assisted therapy.

It all started with one little boy who was acting out, doing things such as flipping a table but never stopping to tell teachers and counselors what was wrong. After a lot of time spent trying to talk to the boy, a teacher suggested that Hicks go home and get her two dogs that had already been trained to visit nursing homes as therapy dogs.

Hicks described the boy as being curled up tensely in a chair “like a snake” when she left. When she arrived with two of her dogs, Larry and Daryl, they went straight to the boy’s side to lie down. The boy eventually got down on the floor and lay there with the dogs, telling them — not the people in the room — how he had been sexually abused at home.

She said the boy feeling comfortable enough with the dogs to talk to them while she was in the room allowed her and the other staff to get him the help he needed, including a safer living situation through the Department of Children’s Services.

“I get so emotional when I tell it,” Hicks said as she wiped a stray tear from her eye.

That event cemented the need for her to continue to help children feel comfortable enough to talk about what they have been through, she said.

But, she added, stories like the boy’s would not have ended as they did had the school not allowed her to bring the dogs into the building to meet with him.

“They were very open-minded,” Hicks said.

After that, she eventually started Helping Paws Healing Hearts, a nonprofit that allows her to work with her three certified therapy dogs to host programs in schools and other places to help children work through their trials in life. A couple of the most recent initiatives include speaking to groups at a juvenile justice center and hosting free weekend grief camps for children and teens who have recently lost loved ones, the next one being Sept. 21-22.

At one of the grief camps, she said another boy was able to talk about his mother having cancer for the first time. She attributed that to the dogs making the children feel at ease.

“We just have story after story of that,” she said.

When she speaks with groups, she also tries to tell children about the dogs’ experiences in order to help them relate to them. For example, two of the dogs were once shelter pets that had been taken care of in animal foster care as puppies. A child who has been in the foster care system may find that is something to which they can relate.

The three dogs, all “part black Labrador, and part sweet dog,” according to Hicks, have been certified after taking tests through an organization called Therapy Dogs International to make sure they could handle stressful situations. Hicks explained how one of them was able to help keep kids calm when a school was once locked down for a tornado warning.

Since she first started Helping Paws Healing Hearts, Hicks said she has traveled as far as Memphis to share about her work with the dogs. She asked the council to support her in her mission to promote animal-assisted therapy.

Prior to Hicks’ presentation, Emily McComb of the United Way updated the council on the status of her organization’s new Volunteer Center website. Starting Aug. 1, nonprofits will be able to use one central site to share what they need help with, and those interested in volunteering can find opportunities to do so. The United Way is currently offering free training sessions to any nonprofits that want to learn how to use the new system. For more information, visit www.cbcan.com.

For more information about Helping Paws Healing Hearts, visit www.helpingpawshealinghearts.com.

The Bradley County Interagency Council will meet again Sept. 16. at the Bradley County Health Department.