HOUSTON – Jan. 8, 2020 – As the dogs enter Claudia Rojas’ second-grade bilingual classroom at Lewis Elementary School, every face lights up. For the next hour or so, the students get lessons in friendship, compassion, and what it means to support and help one another in good times and bad. It’s all part of the Healing Species of Texas program, which brings rescue dogs into classrooms to help teach life lessons to students.
“I love dogs. They’re my favorite animal,” said second-grader Osthin Bonilla, who said the most important lesson he had learned from the program was about empathy. “That means for me to be a good person and respect people. It doesn’t matter whether people are different or not, you can be friends.”
Originally founded in South Carolina to offer violence prevention and intervention programs to at-risk young people, the Texas chapter of Healing Species now works with more than 100 rescue dogs and offers courses in the Houston, Dallas and San Antonio areas. A grant award through Rebuild Texas enabled Spring ISD to bring an eight-week version of the program to four local schools – Lewis, Burchett and Link elementary schools and Spring Early College Academy.
“The dogs that we bring are all rescues,” said Texas Chapter Director Joy Southard, who spends part of each lesson telling students the story of each visiting dog. As the program progresses, she explained, students often come to see elements of their own lives in the dogs’ stories of survival and perseverance.
“The dogs are the bridge to teach empathy to the kids,” Southard said.
Lewis At-Risk Counselor Xochitl Carias said that the students have loved having the program at their campus, and would regularly ask her when the dogs would next be visiting. She has overheard students discussing the lessons afterwards on the playground, and said the school had seen real positive impacts since the start of the Healing Species program.
“They learn so many social skills,” Carias said, “about empathy, about friendship, about looking at people with your heart.”
Second-grader Matthew Mayo said he enjoyed being around the animals, and had learned a lot from them that he could apply to being around the people in his own life.
“Even though you’re different,” Mayo said, “you can still be, like, best friends.”
Southard said she loves seeing children get excited about the animals, and emphasized that those lessons – about friendship, empathy and respect – are at the heart of what Healing Species is all about.
“The main focus is to teach them that they have the tools to rescue each other,” she said, adding, “There’s things that these dogs teach that we can’t even come close to teaching.”