By Lauren Zeugner
WARSAW — Recently Tonya Blanchard, executive director of the Kosciusko County Animal Welfare League, was in the shelter’s parking lot when a neighbor from across the street approached her asking about the Shelter Buddies program. She wanted to bring her grandson.
Earlier this year the AWL launched a new community-driven program to help both its animals and local kids. Called Shelter Buddies, the program allows children to come in and read to the shelter animals.
“I think reading is important,” said Tonya Blanchard, executive director of the shelter. She got the idea from Kids Hope, a program at Vineyard Church in Syracuse where she’s a member. The AWL’s new building provides the space for kids to come and read to the animals.
A supporter of the shelter, who has a Great Dane therapy dog named Cory, has helped out by bringing Cory to the shelter to be read to.
In launching the program, Blanchard and her staff have partnered with Literacy for Companionship Inc. of Fort Wayne, the Warsaw Community Public Library, Baker’s Youth Club and the YMCA. All bring kids to the shelter to read to the animals.
Blanchard said a summer camp program recently brought 17 kids, while the Y’s summer camp program has also brought kids to the shelter. They hung out at the Cat House next door reading to the cats and kittens while they climbed all over the kids. The Literacy for Companionship Inc. kids come in the third Saturday of the month to read to the animals in the afternoon.
“I’m passionate about it,” Blanchard said. “Kids can read out loud and these pets just hear their soft little voices. It’s good for the kids and its great for the pets.” The program is beneficial to both the children and animals. The children benefit by being able to work on their reading skills in a nonjudgmental way. The animals learn humans aren’t that scary and can be trusted.
So far 35-40 children ages 4-13 are coming in and reading to the animals. Other community partners in the program include the library’s Friends of the Library program and the Breakfast Optimist Club.
John Lantz, board president for the AWL, said he joined the Friends of the Library at the Warsaw Community Public Library just to help get the word out about the program.
Friends of the Library members have pulled children’s books about animals out of their book sale holdings. Lantz purchased those books to help start a library of books where the children can choose a book to read to the animals. Children may also bring their own books from home to read.
The Optimists have provided funding for the shelter to purchase stools for the children to use while they read.
Blanchard selects pets who are senior pets, puppies, kittens and special needs pets for the children to read to. The senior pets, she said, are calm and quiet, perfect for older people considering adoption.
Since the program started, three families whose children have come to read to the animals have also adopted pets from the shelter. “If anything, it teaches kids about responsibility about animals,” Blanchard said.
Kittens need the most attention, Blanchard said, since many come in as wild ferals. “These kitties need to hear those soft little voices,” she said.
She stressed pets hearing people talking and reading to them can be the best medicine for them as they wait for adoption.
Children who would like to read to the animals do not need to be part of an organized group. Blanchard just asks parents call to make an appointment during business hours for their children to come in to read.
If parents would like their children to be part of a more organized group, Blanchard suggested they contact Literacy for Companionship at lforcompanionship.org or the public library.
“I feel it builds confident readers,” she said. “And it teaches compassion. Kids will ask questions about the animals they read to.” Blanchard said some typical questions include how long the animal has been at the shelter and what was the owner’s reaction when they had to give up their pet.
And they notice when a dog or cat is no longer at the shelter. Hearing an animal was adopted, Blanchard said the kids typically ask if that animal “went to a good home.”
Another option parents can look into is renting the conference room at the shelter for their child’s birthday party, which according to Blanchard tends to end up as a reading event. The kids find the books and want to read to the animals.