You know what a happy Christmas season story is, right?
It will have children, of course, and good deeds that help others. There will be a moment of miracle, perhaps, and a lesson in understanding or empathy or love. Best of all, there will be an animal or several, preferably cute and cuddly and fur-full from nose to tail and back.
Just in time, we have a few such stories, all brand new and absolutely true.
Like all stories, these begin with a beginning and in this case, it is the same beginning. The stories come from local volunteers at FUReverAsFriends, a non-profit group that takes trained and certified therapy teams of pets and owners to area schools, libraries, hospitals, nursing homes, funeral parlors, and various community events to offer the companionship, comfort, solace, friendliness, fun, and acceptance of another soul perfectly delighted to be with you.
A team of owner and pet is not paid, uses its own equipment, travels at its own expense and has no agenda other than to offer aid in whatever way is likely to bring positive feelings and outcomes. Mostly this is the pet’s work. A dog, a cat, a rabbit suited to therapy loves the attention, the cuddling, the petting, the excitement of new friends.
Such open acceptance encourages smiles, conversation, happy memories, trust and curiosity in people of all ages and backgrounds. It might have something to do with the therapy pets, all of whom are chosen for quiet, calm, friendly personalities, and who take an active pleasure in being with people. Or maybe it’s just because hugging or petting a fuzzy head and furry body is such a satisfying joy.
There are numerous research studies showing the beneficial, even breakthrough, effects for improved mental, emotional and physical health through pet therapy. But to find out what actually can happen, let’s start with the beginning and read the stories.
THE PURPLE CAT
Sharon and John Bednar of Woolwich joined with like-minded people and founded FureverAsFriends (FAF) to carry animal therapy work they had been involved with in nearby states, closer to home. In the 12 or so years they have been operating, the organization has grown from about a dozen pet/owner teams to more than 100 teams and is the recipient of numerous awards for service and volunteerism.
With a family history that boasts a great-great-grandfather who trained circus apes for Barnum and Bailey and a great-aunt who regularly jumped her horse, Tony, from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, Sharon Bednar can claim a tradition of working with animals. Like every other pet owner contacted at FAF, the Bednars identify as “animal lovers” and their pets are adopted from shelters or rescues.
One of her animals, a fluffy gray cat named Mr. Talbot, brought surprise and great comfort to a grandmother in a nursing home. Mr. Talbot, Sharon Bednar said, visited the home in a purple vest and orange bow.
The grandmother, Mary Ellen Frazure, was astonished to see what she took for a purple cat, Sharon chuckled. “She kept saying, ‘I never saw a purple cat before,’”
The lady was the grandmother of Tiffany Mercer, currently president of the Swedesboro-Woolwich School Parent-Teacher organization. Her grandmother, Mercer said, met Mr. Talbot and immediately decided he was a purple cat. “Until the day of her passing (a few years ago) she would randomly speak about Mr. Talbot,” Mercer said in a recent email. “Of course … he was always referred to as, ‘The purple cat’. Out of the blue on a regular basis she would say, ‘Do you remember that purple cat?’
“My grandmother was very ill for several years… She was never happy or pleasant in the hospital but her therapeutic visits (at a Woodstown nursing home) from Talbot transformed her entire personality and facial expression. The second Talbot sat on her lap and she began petting him, she was transformed. I am so thankful for FURever As Friends!!”
LEXI AND THE BLIND MAN
The Bednars train therapy dogs as well as cats. Lexi, a senior dog of Rottweiler and German Shepherd parents, belied his warrior heritage and was quite sensitive when working.
Sharon took him for a visit to a nursing home one day and met a man. “I didn’t know was blind. But when I saw he was, I took his hand and guided it to Lexi’s head, but there was no response from him,” she said.
“So, we went to another person but when Lexi hesitated a little, I looked back. The man was reaching out his hand, reaching out for Lexi. I took her back to him. He touched her head and then he smiled. I have to tell you, it lit up the room, that smile. The whole room.
“That’s what we want at FAF, that connection,” Bednar said.
WHAT THE DOG TAUGHT THE MOM
One of the co-founders of FAF is also a volunteer therapy team with her dogs, all Golden Retrievers. Dr. Laurie Appel, a psychologist with a local practice, frequently brought her golden, Alex, to the library for reading sessions where, she said, “the kids loved him.
“There was a mom who would come with her girls. The girls loved the dogs but the mother was afraid of all the dogs,” Appel said. “She loved seeing her girls with Alex so much she eventually got close enough to pet him. It was a first for her, a first step. Alex just loved it. He loved being petted.
“And he showed the mom she didn’t have to be afraid of dogs.”
HOW THE BUNNY SAVED A CAT
Karen Spring of Deptford and her twin teens Aaron and Connor, 15, bring a not-so-ordinary facet to a therapy team. They have well-behaved, lovable, and cute-as-a-bunny rabbits.
Yes, just that cute. The adult rabbits, soft and white-furred Juliet and Sebastian, tri-colored and laid-back, are generally a hit, especially with children, Spring said. “They’re very happy being petted,” she added. “They love the attention.”
Spring and her boys have been volunteering for several years. Her son Aaron often visited the Deptford Library for a reading program and he took Sebastian. “My sons and I try to give lessons, like, where a bunny likes to be petted, what they eat. Maybe there’ll be less animal abuse in the world if the children learn about animals.”
Sebastian became a favorite of a little boy, about six or seven, Spring said. “He came one day and said, ‘I got a cat.’ He was so excited to tell us. ‘I got a cat and I named it Sebastian for the bunny.’ So, there you have it,” Spring remarked, “A family chose to rescue a cat because he loved a bunny.
“It’s very rewarding to do this. We come here and it’s like Christmas morning. ‘Oh, look who’s here,’ people get happy. ‘Oh. Come over this way. Look at the rabbits!’ They like to see us.”
THE BEAGLE AND THE SILENT BOY
Spring said she has watched children “who hated to read go to loving to read. They are anxious to read to the dog.” Besides her rabbits, Spring has a beagle therapy dog named Samantha. “They pick out special books to read to Samantha, books they think she’ll like.”
But one youngster completely surprised her, and most everyone else who knew him. “This boy, he was about 10 or 11, and came in and read to Samantha and he read beautifully,” Spring recounted.
“Then he told me about his grandfather’s dog and how he loved it. I looked up and saw his teacher was dumbfounded. She called the classroom teacher to come down and she was dumbfounded. They told me this was a child who didn’t talk; that he had never talked.
“He came every Friday from then on and spoke to Samantha. He was a charming boy who read beautifully.”
WHERE ANGEL KEEPS HER WINGS
Angel is Mitzi Kowal’s dog, a 100-lb mix of Labrador, German Shepherd and Border Collie and, “The smartest dog I’ve ever had.” She came into Kowal’s life as a puppy not long after the West Deptford woman lost her husband and, shortly after, her dog. “She came just when I needed her,” Kowal said. “She was my angel.”
Mostly all black, Angel has an unusual patch of white on her chest, shaped like a seagull in flight with open wings. The patch often fascinates little kids, Kowal said. “They ask about it and I tell them, ‘That’s where Angel keeps her wings.’
“I take her to a lot of special needs classes and she’s a very calming presence. The staff says that whenever she’s around, everybody calms down.”
Kowal has used Angel’s calming skills to ease the fears some of the children face. “They aren’t feeling well or they’re afraid of thunder, or the dark or whatever, but I tell them Angel’s wings come out when you’re asleep. You can ask her to protect you when you’re sleeping. And they’ll talk to her and ask. I had a child tell me, ‘I was scared but Angel came to visit me. I felt her.’
“Sometimes a child will say, ‘I just lost my grandpa’ or a pet or something. I say Angel can carry messages to Heaven, and kids who are grieving will write a note or talk in her ear, giving a message. It helps them feel better.
“Angel and I, we love what we’re doing.”
NOW WE PRAY
Angel and owner Mitzi Kowal have on occasion accepted a request to be a comfort team at funeral homes. It is soothing and comforting to have a friendly pet nearby, Kowal explained. But this visit proved unusual.
“A woman had passed, this was last spring. I took Angel to meet the family and they all loved her. Then I took her up to the open casket. She wanted to go. It was the first time she’d been to an open casket and she put her head up and sniffed. I told Angel, ‘This is Ms. … but that’s just the shell of her because she’s up in Heaven with her puppies.’ I was a little worried she’d lick the lady’s face.
“I said, now we have to say a prayer for her and we stepped back. I bowed my head. There was a murmur in the room and I looked at Angel.
“She had bowed her head! She had never done that before. The family was amazed. I was amazed!”
Kowal echoed the sentiment expressed by Karen Spring and, in some fashion, by all the therapy animal owners contacted. “What we give comes back a hundred-fold.”
Learn more about the organization at its website, FureverAsFriends.org.
By Jean Redstone