By – Nick Sheehy
It all started with a dog. The black Weimaraner’s name was Gabriel.
His owner Pam Gaber brought him to see the children at the Phoenix Crisis Nursery during a Christmas party. Gabriel was dressed in antlers and a “Just Call Me Rudolph” T-shirt. The dog shed a light at the party and the children battling with sickness were joyous and laughing. It was the start of something special.
Gabriel passed away in May 2010 but his legacy lives on through Gabriel’s Angels.
The dog helped over 10,000 kids and trailblazed a path for pet therapy in Arizona.
Founded by Gaber, it is the only program that uses pet therapy to inspire confidence, compassion and best behaviors in at-risk children in Arizona.
Established in 2000, Gabriel’s Angels currently provides pet therapy services to 122 partner agencies free of charge and serves over 14,800 children.
The therapy teams involve a registered therapy dog and owner. They visit crisis nurseries, domestic violence and homeless shelters, group homes, and at-risk children in after-school programs.
“Our target demographic is at-risk children. Kids below the poverty line who experienced abuse and neglect or if they have behavior issues struggling in schools,” said Director of Development, Blake Blackman. “Usually, these are kids who have been in the foster care system and their behaviors are so extreme they need to be in a facility that is 24/7. The dogs work one-on-one with the child.”
Gabriel’s Angels have recently collaborated with Fiesta Bowl Charities to expand their Animals, Books, and Children (ABC) program.
The ABC program is utilized in schools weekly. It’s for children in 1st through 3rd grade and it aims to improve reading skills, comprehension, speed, and to develop core social behaviors.
Children receive individual attention during a one-hour session. The designated ABC therapy team will read with the same children each week. The child will have time to feel comfortable, work directly on reading skills, and conclude the visit by engaging in a fun behavioral development activity. The program lasts 12-16 weeks.
“We monitor the literacy scores of the children throughout the entire time they’re in the program. The kids display an increase in confidence and a stronger ability to read as they develop a relationship with the dog,” Blackman said.
All the Arizona schools that participated are required to provide state or district pre- and post-reading test scores so that Gabriel’s Angels can assess programs efficacy.
In a statement from Kenilworth Elementary, the school said, “We are amazed at how much the ABC program supported our students with their willingness to read and with their reading progress. Students were immediately happy and calm, strengthening their ability to focus and engage. We also noticed an improvement with attendance from the students on the days of the program. The students voiced their excitement about being part of this program.”
Adds the Mesa Center for Success, “Gabriel’s Angels’ ABC program is incredibly beneficial to our students. Our students made significant progress that data and observation reflect. The best part was to see the joy in kids who normally have a negative view on reading. Best of all, they began to enjoy reading. I highly recommend this program!”
The Fiesta Bowl Charities has also funded therapy teams and has allowed them to visit more children. The current cost to train and support one therapy team for a year is $3,500.
“The Fiesta Bowl has been a community funder, they’re a big part of supporting non-profits. They’re one of our community foundations that help expand our impact,” Blackman said.
In other programs such as the Animal Assisted Activity Pet Therapy Program and Individual Intervention Program, dogs are used to teach the core behaviors of trust, empathy, and respect. The guiding philosophy of Gabriel’s Angels is that the unconditional love of a dog can heal a child.
“These dogs are helping people feel wanted. We have dogs of all shapes and sizes. These dogs are providing unconditional love to these children,” Blackman said. “Some of the stresses in their life are so overwhelming and when they’re engaged in our program this is a moment they can have a warm hug from a therapy dog.”