by Emily Charrier, courtesy of Sonoma Index-Tribune
The ding of the bell signals the class at Sassarini Elementary School (AZ) that it’s time to head to the library. There’s a cacophony of excitable chatter as the kids enter, swinging backpacks, schlepping books and generally bouncing around. But as soon as the youth sees the little purple stroller, they lower their voices and their boisterous energy falls into a hushed calm.
One by one, almost as if they were in a receiving line at a wedding, the students parade past the stroller, offering their greetings to Leo. Born with a cerebral condition that limits his mobility, Leo is lucky to be alive. The 1.5 year old black cat was in a kill shelter in San Bruno before he was adopted by Mary Green, the founder of Pets Lifeline’s Humane Education program.
“He’s perfect for kids because he doesn’t freak out,” Green said of Leo. “He stays calm and they can pet him.”
Fourth-grader Jacob Gutierrez, 9, grabs a book off the shelf and plunks down next to Leo. He flips to the opening page, and begins to read. Aside from giving Leo an occasional pet, he doesn’t stop until he reaches the end of the book, down to the glossary. “Thanks for listening, Leo,” Gutierrez said before patting Leo on the head and running off to sit with a friend.
“Education is a lot of smoke and mirrors,” joked Danielle Smith, the humane educator Pets Lifeline has recently stationed at Sassarini. “Really, we’re teaching reading, we’re teaching writing and, most importantly, we’re teaching kindness. Animals are just the hook.”
This is the first year of Love of Learning, the Pets Lifeline pilot program based out of Sassarini. Smith, a former preschool teacher, is on campus four days a week to coordinate reading and writing programs that help build students’ literacy skills. She’s usually accompanied by her own therapy cat, but Dewey, the school’s “library cat,” recently died. Smith is now looking for a new rescue feline that can stay calm around the big energy of little students.
“It does two specific things,” said Nancy King, executive director of Pets Lifeline. “It teaches children compassion for living things. At the same time, animals are a great teaching tool and the kids forget they’re learning.”
Green regularly brings Leo on campus, but also splits her time between the school district’s other elementary schools. Whenever a teacher requests a humane educator, Green is the one who answers the call. As a certified reading specialist, she has seen first-hand how animals can inspire children to learn.
“I have an animal with me everywhere I go,” Green said. “I’m like the Pied Piper when I get to campus, (the children) just flock to us. Every kid who tries it wants to come back for more.”
Writing is also a critical piece of the students’ education. They not only write biographies about the shelter animals, which are read by potential adopters, but they’re encouraged to write letters to the cats.
“The cat writes back to them, and they become pen pals,” King said. “The letters from the cat always encourages reading.”