returned from Newtown, CT, after a three-day visit, where she helped spread some joy and comfort to children and adults recovering from the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.
Ladel lives with Pastor Tim Kinne and his wife, Deb. Ladel traveled to Newtown with three handlers, Deb Kinne, Lauraine Morajda and Kylie Yocum.
Read about their experience in this Q&A with Deb Kinne:
How many dogs went to Newtown?
Nine full grown and one puppy in training. One dog turned 1 year old while we were in Connecticut and she is almost ready to be "placed." The puppy is just 9 weeks old and, you can imagine, he was pretty popular!
Which places did you visit?
Ladel visited Newtown High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, including before and after school care, and Immanuel Lutheran School of Danbury. In addition, while Ladel and Lauraine stayed in the counseling office at Newtown HS one day, I accompanied another group of dogs and handlers to visit the Lutheran Home of Southbury to be a little joy and comfort to some elderly folk there. While there, we met the owner of a non-profit health clinic in Newtown called Kevin's Clinic which was named after the owner's son who died when he was 8 years old. He invited us to the clinic with the dogs. He had been struggling with the Sandy Hook event as it brought up memories of his son. Having the dogs there brightened his day and made him smile. We also attended a Mary Kay meeting as a way of saying "thank you" to a woman who was instrumental in inviting the dogs to Newtown in the first place. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed.
Who were Ladel's best dog friends?
Chloe from Lord of Life Lutheran in LaFox; they went on the post Superstorm Sandy trip to New York/New Jersey together; and JoJo from Living Christ Lutheran in Arlington Heights. They went on the Joplin Tornado trip together. Probably Ladel's favorite comfort dog is Magic--her mother, but she was not on this trip. Other than that, all the dogs get along and play well together.
Can you share some memories of Ladel comforting kids/adults in Newtown?
In Newtown HS, there was one girl who was initially afraid to even touch Ladel. She had a terrible fear of dogs. Before we knew it, she was visiting Ladel every chance she had and now her profile pic on her FB page is her hugging Ladel! There was also a young man who inquired how much it cost to have us come to be with them for weeks on end. He could not even comprehend that we do this as a volunteer service...to share love and comfort with others as our God shares His love and comfort with us. By the end of the week, a petition had been started by the students and staff to present to the school board to have a dog placed permanently at the high school.
We were the only outside group allowed into Sandy Hook Elementary and had to pass through a series of police and barricades. We were not allowed to enter until the police had done a complete perimeter search with their police dogs. The first day we went, the school had only approved three dogs and the puppy, but we drove in with an extra van of three dogs just in case. Before we entered the school, those in charge said, "Yes...PLEASE...bring in all the dogs you have here!"
The community and school staff did a phenomenal job of repainting and making minor changes to a junior high school nearby which had been closed a year and a half ago. It became the "New Sandy Hook Elementary School." They moved all of the childrens' desks and belongings and arranged them as closely as possible to the way they had been left at the other school. They even went so far as to disassemble a floor-to-ceiling mosaic from the old school and placed it on the wall in the new cafeteria to give the kids something "familiar."
We (Lauraine, Ladel and I) ended up being given the first assignment in the "before school care" program. The parents that normally dropped their kids off, and then left for work, ended up bringing their kids and staying as long as they possibly could that day. We then were placed where kids could come and pet the dogs with their teachers as a class. It was just the random things the children would say about a friend or sibling that they wouldn't be seeing again. The young ones understand to some extent, but do not understand the permanence of the situation. Some of the older kids would talk about the kids they knew or how happy they are that they still have their little sister or brother.
I was amazed at the strength of the teachers and staff...although some of them did stop by each morning for a power visit with a comfort dog before heading to class! At the end of the day, they would break down and hold each other and cry or release their emotions in an appropriate way. While the kids were in their presence though, they tried to remain strong and keep things as "normal" as possible.
The parents really need our prayers! Many of the Sandy Hook parents stayed at school the entire day the day kids went back to classes, and I believe they are allowed to continue that as long as they feel the need. Not only are they struggling with the fears they faced on that fateful day whether their child would be coming home, but they are now faced with helping their children work through the emotions and memories of that day. There was one little girl who was the only one in her classroom who survived and several others who were in danger, but only survived because of the quick thinking of their teachers. That's a lot for anyone to work through.
Tell me how the Comfort Dogs made a difference in Newtown?
There are so many memories and people expressing their gratitude and for the difference it made to the entire town. So many people around the country have done things and sent things to these people out of the kindness of their hearts and I know all of these acts of kindness are appreciated by the people of Newtown. The difference our dogs made was not something physical, but emotional. Dogs have a calming influence and love unconditionally...especially those who are trained to do so! There were many children who had not planned to go to school, but we were told they changed their minds when they found out the dogs would be there for them. The parents were so grateful. The dogs just created a bridge of sorts to help bring people back from a dark period and place back into a place where they can begin the healing process.
I saw the thank you letter on Ladel's FB page, tell me about that.
Last Friday was supposedly going to be the Comfort Dog's last day in Newtown. So many people asked us if we could come back and expressed their gratitude for the difference our dogs (and handlers) had made in their recovery process. Everything from treats and toys for the dogs, brownies for the humans, and notes of gratitude like this one. This is just one of several we received. There are also many more words of praise and appreciation on our dogs' Facebook Pages. Not only from Newtown residents, but also from people around the world and how it has brightened their lives just following our trip. They say that it's like they themselves have had a part in the healing process by supporting our Comfort Dog Ministry.
How are the people of Newtown, the children and teachers at Sandy Hook doing? Does it seem that the healing process has started?
The children, parents and teachers all have their own set of "things" to deal with. One thing is for sure, this tragedy touched everyone in this town in some way. But, yes, I would say they have taken the first steps to bring some sort of "normalcy" back to their lives. Many will obviously be dealing with this for quite some time and will have good days and bad. They are a strong, closely-knit community though, and are doing the things necessary to begin the healing process.
In the meantime, our Lutheran Church Charities president, Tim Hetzner, has told the people of Sandy Hook and Newtown that we will have dogs there for them as long as they need us. I'm already contacting some of Ladel's other handlers to be on standby for the next deployment of Comfort Dogs, if they decide they need us.
Ladel will not be there this week, but if anyone wants to continue watching our dogs in action, they can go to K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs Facebook page. To view Ladel's participation and other updates as they become available to us, you may go to her page at Ladel Comfort Dog. (Don't forget to LIKE her!)