Sometimes all it takes is a pair of soft brown eyes and the gentle nudge of a warm muzzle nuzzling you to drain you of stress and ease your apprehension. If you’re a dog lover, you get it. It’s that power to instantly lighten your mood and melt your heart that Pam Gaber recognized in dogs that would propel her to begin Gabriel’s Angels, a nonprofit serving thousands of at-risk children through pet therapy in Arizona.
Pam hasn’t been the only one to recognize the immense emotional benefits canines can provide. Currently, dogs are used in courtrooms, airports, hospitals, college campuses, libraries, and almost anywhere else that people need their spirits lifted and/or their anxiety levels taken down a notch or two or even three.
For a bit of back story, Pam was working a corporate job when she volunteered at Child Crisis Nursery in Phoenix. She’d gotten a Weimaraner puppy she’d named Gabriel and wanted to socialize him. After asking the nursery about the possibility of bringing him on one of her visits, she was given the go-ahead. It was at a Christmas party that Pam introduced him. When Gabriel bounced in, the children there, who are often withdrawn, couldn’t wait to meet the puppy and smother him with hugs and kisses.
After witnessing the amazing connection between Gabriel and the kids and how they’d come out of their shells because of him, it planted a seed. When she left, Pam couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something about what had just happened that could be used for good if replicated. It was from that point that her mission began. It started out slowly, but she convinced others to join her. There was a lot of work to be performed to build up to where Gabriel’s Angels is today, but she was determined.
Children in emotional pain, like adults, can become reclusive. Dogs connect with children and help them to better cope with their situation and surroundings. Aiding them to become healthy children that would grow up to be healthy adults was Pam’s goal, and it is now the goal of everyone who volunteers with the program. Today, Gabriel’s Angels works with 75+ facilities, including Title One schools, after-school programs, crisis shelters, domestic violence groups, and homeless shelters.
In order to bring about change, there were six core behaviors they wanted to develop among the kids from the beginning. Based on Dr. Bruce Perry’s tenets for inspiring children, they include Attachments (being a friend), Self-regulation (thinking before you act), Affiliation (joining in), Awareness (thinking of others), Tolerance (accepting differences), and Respect (respecting yourself and others). They’ve added a seventh, which is empathy.
Initially, as Pam was growing the team, it was her job with staff to get out and share with the public how the program could help the facilities they were targeting. Now, as the program has grown in popularity, people contact them. Reaction from the communities they serve has been incredibly positive and supportive. Gabriel’s Angels is also working in schools more frequently with the ABC Animals book series with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, which has turned out to be a fantastic way to engage kids.
The 100 therapy teams that work towards Pam’s goals are all on a volunteer basis with the assistance of a dozen or so Helping Hands. The Helping Hands are the support arm of the operation, and together the two groups are the heart of Gabriel’s Angels’ work. Spread between southern and northern Arizona, it’s estimated that they are making about 150 visits a month. Something they’ve started recently that’s become popular is community support visits, which they are now racking up to 175 per month. Everything is free of charge, so they rely on the public for help.
In addition to their annual fall fundraiser, that’s been around since 2011, they’re always looking for more volunteer teams, Helping Hands members, and, of course, community support. If you’ve got a dog and think you’d like to give it a go, child-friendly, predictable, and well-mannered pets can be registered with their handlers through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs or Pet Partners and join Gabriel’s Angels in serving their mission. To learn more about the process, visit gabrielsangels.org/what-we-do/
Helping Hands volunteers are matched with a therapy team on designated visits. During pet therapy visits, volunteers spend time engaging children in animal behavior, pet care, grooming, safety, and relating animal needs and behaviors to the children’s needs and behaviors. All volunteers are given tools, teaching aids, training, and continued support in helping children achieve critical reading and social skills.
If any of this sounds like you or you’d like to donate, go to gabrielsangels.org/how-to-