AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – “I get worried, then I get upset,” said 15-year-old Theresa.
She’s one of about 150 girls at Excelsior Youth Center in Aurora. She’s had some tough times.
“My life has been in a rough patch … because I’ve had a lot of anger in my life,” she said.
That’s why Theresa is at Excelsior. It’s a place that helps girls like her change. On average the girls there have been in eight to 10 facilities and homes before reaching Excelsior. Some (not Theresa) are victims of some of the worst society can offer — the victims of rape, incest or neglect.
While Theresa has her moments, she’s really a sweet kid who loves animals. One of her challenges has been reading. She said other kids judged her.
“I just didn’t feel comfortable reading out loud … I got teased because of stuttering.”
So girls like Theresa would loathe reading classes. Special ed literacy specialist Jordana Deem would see it all the time.
“I’d see kids walking through the hall and they’d be angry and upset. You know most of these kids have experienced significant trauma in their lives,” Deem said.
There were trained therapy dogs being used in therapy sessions with the girls. Those sessions, where fragile victims often reveal incredibly painful episodes in their lives, were benefitting from the presence of dogs. The girls would say things to dogs they couldn’t to people. Deem thought it might work with reading.
“And we started talking and I said, ‘I would love to have dogs come into my room and read with the girls,’ “ Deem said.
So they gave it a shot — and the successes are amazing.
“There’s no judgment. The girls read freely because there’s not someone looking over their shoulder saying, ‘You did that wrong,’ ” said Deem. “It’s just the dogs happy to be with them and being pet and being read to.”
Bad behaviors began to shrink away because the girls did not want to miss out on the Thursday sessions with the dogs. They looked forward to the reading, rather than dreading it.
Theresa loves to have the dogs there.
“Because they lay on your lap, they listen and fall asleep when you’re reading to them.”
She’s feeling good enough about her reading to read in front of a TV camera.
“It helps me more with self-esteem and I have a big issue with self-esteem.”
Many of the girls like Theresa are jumping grade levels. She has jumped two grade levels in six months. Her stuttering is vanishing. Her smile is strong.
“These girls will do anything for animals,” Deem said.
Excelsior’s executive director Joan Gabrielson realizes there are all kinds of benefits.
“And other girls that didn’t want to share, they would never share anything and they would act out. Well now they would share reading with the dog and they would share their book and the dog with another girl,” Gabrielson said.
The organization is always struggling to keep enough funding going for programs like the dogs. This Holiday season the work they do every day is making a difference and changing lives – with the help of some kind-hearted and patient dogs.
Help Excelsior do the work they do to save the lives of girls who’ve been through the worst. LINK: Excelsioryc.org.
– Happy Holidays, Alan Gionet