Pet Therapy Program Helps Students Work on Reading Skills

By Lauren Wanko

Soon after the school day begins, student Lindsay Norcross waits for her mentor of sorts — Lexi the dog. The 16-year-old reads to the animal twice a month at Clearview Regional High School in Mullica Hill.

“I really love it. It’s so cool. I always wanted to read a book to Lexi and all that and it’s like amazing,” she said.

Lexi’s part of FURever As Friends, a South Jersey based nonprofit. Animal lover Sharon Bednar launched the pet therapy program two years ago after working with a similar group out of state. She was inspired to create the S.M.I.L.E. Program — Silent Mentors in Literacy Education. On this day, Lexi and Bentley the cat join these students for another reading session.

“The children, when they come in they read. We’re not correcting them. We’re trying to give them a relaxed atmosphere they can say and pronounce however they want and they’re reading to the pet, not to us,” Bednar said.

Every student gets to pick the book and read to all the pets visiting. FURever As Friends works with 10 different libraries and another 10 schools. All the students in the schools have special needs.

“My students who are so unwilling to read normally are one of the first ones up and ready to read for the dogs,” said teacher Jenn Roselli.

Most of the 16- to 17-year-olds in teacher Roselli’s class have down syndrome and need speech therapy.

“Most kids go from K-2 grade learning levels,” she said.

Ivan doesn’t talk much in class, but is eager to read to the animals.

“All of my students who are most shy have definitely broken out of their shells. They are excited when the dogs come. They know when pet therapy is going to be,” Roselli said.

“It works. Reading to an animal does help improve the children’s literacy, vocabulary and attention,” Bednar said.

Seventeen-year-old Brian Howard is visually impaired. Not only does he love sharing these stories with his furry friends, but he said, “It makes me feel happy.”

He loves singing to them too.

Student Matt Young says he feels comfortable reading to Lexi and Bentley.

“Because I can read clearly and don’t mess up my words,” he said.

FURever As Friends has more than 80 human volunteers and another 100 four-legged ones. In order to become involved, both the pets and handlers must be certified as a therapy team. That includes orientation and testing.

Bednar says the dogs must be 9 months old, calm and sociable. Cats also must be able to get along with dogs and other animals. There are two bunnies in the program. The volunteers also visit hospitals, nursing homes and adult behavioral centers.

What does it do for Bednar? “It puts me on such a natural high it’s unbelievable. It’s so rewarding. There’s really no words for it,” she said.

When asked if she will keep reading to Lexi and Bentley, Norcross said, “Oh yeah, definitely.”

FURever As Friends hopes to eventually expand statewide.