“No dogs allowed in school?” Sunshine Pet Therapy Animal Program

Story by Alan Voekel, Photos courtesy of Roni Ziemba
In a classic peanuts cartoon, Snoopy is famously offended by a sign reading “No Dogs Allowed in School.” For over ten years, Jackie Vásquez Lapan, the CEO of the Lapan Sunshine Foundation, has worked tirelessly to promote just the opposite idea: that not only should dogs be allowed, pets of all kinds  have a vital role in schools helping children to relax, communicate better with others, and even boosting academic achievement

It was during her years just out of college working in a Ronald McDonald House in Kansas City that Jackie first noticed the therapeutic effects that pets could have on children with autism. Impressed by what she was seeing. Jackie returned to school to complete her master’s degree researching the effects of pet therapy on special needs children. Her research culminated with a thesis paper documenting an eye-popping increase in communication and academic achievement among this student population.

“Over my years working with a variety of pet therapy programs nationwide I’ve come to see that pet therapy strategies are not only effective with special needs children, but with ALL children,” she noted. “It is particularly effective with students from distressed backgrounds who have trust issues.”

In 2018 Jackie brought a pet therapy program to the Lapan College and Career Club’s after-school program, whose efforts provide opportunity and resources to the youth of Southern Tucson. “I fell in love with the clubhouse and with its mission!” she said. “The pet program started with a handful of kids and is now one of the most popular offerings and serves over 60 kids twice a week.” The program is open to everyone. “The only requirement is that you like pets!” she laughed.

With demand rising for pet therapy services throughout the South Tucson community, as well as the University of Arizona, Pima College, and El Rio Clinics, the phone is ringing off the hook at the offices of the Sunshine Therapy Animals which Jackie launched this year in response to the rising need. “We have an overwhelming demand for new volunteers and pets,” she explained. “We can train and certify the pets. What we mostly need are volunteers who have a passion for pets and for helping kids.”

Each session follows a familiar routine that is calming and designed to let the students relax and interact with the menagerie of pets in attendance along with the volunteers. Every week the visit begins with the students gathering in a circle with the dogs while the volunteer handler leads them in a centering activity built around the core behavior of STA and more specifically the context of pets and proper care for pets.

This is followed up with a lesson of the day, such as how to create nutritious dog treats which then becomes an activity that the kids can work on together in teams. STA prides itself in its training and support of its volunteer so they feel prepared for their visits.

“Another key value we have is service and giving back to the community,” noted Jackie. “It’s important for the kids to develop a heart and an appreciation of the joy that comes from helping others.” Students might then prepare gift bags of doggy treats to deliver to the humane society where they will experience the pleasure of seeing the excitement of the dogs who receive them while learning about the importance of the organization and how they might get involved.

“While the name of the program is ‘Pet Therapy, the focus and the purpose is all about the kids and the impact these ideas and interactions have on them,” noted volunteer and Lapan Program alumnus Gigi Contreras.

Jackie’s three-legged rescue therapy dog “Walter” made a big impression on one young man at the Lapan Clubhouse. “I realized that if Walter can go through life and be happy hopping along on three legs, then how much more can I choose to overcome my problems and be happy with the good things in my life,” he reflected thoughtfully.

What is abundantly clear is that some of the most eloquent truths and poignant moments in each session are found in the silent yet expressive eyes of the pets in attendance. Those eyes have guided hurting, wounded, and battered young hearts into finding meaning, purpose, inspiration, and success in overcoming their personal challenges, whatever they may be.
“And that’s what it’s all about.” smiled Jackie.

If you or someone you know may be interested in volunteering, please contact Jackie at (520)336-7124 or email jackie@la pancollegeclub.org



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