He experienced uncertainty and abandonment at age 9 as he entered the Catholic Charities unaccompanied minor program (UMP). With his huge brown eyes, he took in the world around him. Anthony's history made him slow to trust. He liked to be mostly silent and aloof. Then one day, there is a breakthrough when the classroom is visited by a four-legged volunteer with floppy ears and a presence that offers companionship without expectations. Anthony blossoms!
Therapy dog, Rocco, and his human partner, Sharon Callahan, volunteer in the UMP classroom. Therapy dogs can help children reduce their anxiety and at the same time, learn new skills that will serve them well - taking turns, listening to others, developing empathy, helping others and asking for help when they need it. Rocco is relaxed, confident, enjoys the company of children and is eager to please them by performing tricks from his vast repertoire on request.
Rocco helps create an environment that encourages the children to open up to him, as well as to each other.
One of the activities that really bridges the relationship between Rocco and the children is when he shares his “Comfort Bag” lesson. Rocco comes prepared with a bag of items that help him when he is transitioning to a new environment or has to be separated from his family – similar situations to the children in UMP. Rocco takes out items from his bag (a favorite photo, his best toy, a snuggle blanket, a massaging dog brush) and his person, Sharon, explains how each item helps to calm Rocco when he is anxious.
The children are encouraged to create their own comfort bags, that are donated by volunteers. Items they can include mirror Rocco’s – a special snack, photos, a night light, a stuffed animal, positive affirmations, and anything they can think of in order to make it unique to them.
The Right Thing at the Right Time
Anthony’s story is not especially unique, nor is he the only child who has been positively impacted through his contact with Rocco. Rocco’s partner, Sharon, states that, “One of Rocco’s strengths is his innate ability to sense what people want or need from him and to respond accordingly. If someone is tentative about meeting him, Rocco reads their cues and slows his approach or even respectfully hangs back. However, if they are in need of a snuggle buddy or just a calm companion, he is happily all in!"
Extraordinary things happen every day in the UMP program. Lessons are taught that can last a lifetime – for the children as well as the adults who have the privilege of caring for them.