Event at Harvard school teaches kids about mental health issues

Therapy dogs visit students at Jefferson Elementary School

HARVARD – Ms. LeFebvre’s fourth-grade class perked up, rustled in their chairs and peered toward the door.

At the entrance stood 118 pounds of appropriately named Bernese Mountain Dog. Diesel, the friendly therapy dog with a black coat and a white stripe between his eyes, was here to spread his joy.

Jayne Spittler, Diesel’s handler, eased the kids’ fears: “You’re all going to get a chance to pet him,” she told them.

And they would. Thursday was National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. To teach children about the importance of seeking out help for mental health issues, the McHenry County Mental Health Board, Big Brothers Big Sisters of McHenry County and Centegra Health System’s Caring Paws program sent three dogs prancing through the halls and into the classrooms of Jefferson Elementary School in Harvard.

“The overarching goal is to reduce the stigma to mental health issues,” said Meghan Brown of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

During Thursday morning’s event, the dogs made appearances in 12 classrooms. While their handlers talked about the health benefits of visits from friendly pets, the dogs sat quietly at their feet.

Then they stood and were engulfed by eager 10-year-olds.

“As a system, it’s important to really educate young people as young as we can,” said Todd Schroll, interim executive director for the McHenry County Mental Health Board. “It’s important for them to be aware and to be willing to access services.”

While organizers of the event focused on teaching students an important message, the kids were more or less locked in on Diesel, May and Carly.

Steve Schwertfeger, the handler of May, an Australian shepherd, said that no matter where he takes his therapy dog, she tends to steal the show.

“If I walk in the hospital, they don’t know who I am. But if she walks in, everybody knows her,” Schwertfeger said. “Which is good. ... It shows how people react to an animal there to help out.”

As students stared in awe, May performed her signature trick, retrieving two tennis balls from Schwertfeger at once. She picked one up, carried it to the other, then advanced them one by one, a few steps at a time, back to her owner.

Like all animal assisted therapy teams, May and Schwertfeger pass a series of tests that determine the dog’s ability to spread cheer while staying immune to what are often noisy and hectic surroundings.

But May goes above and beyond. About a year ago, Schwertfeger said, the two walked into the room of a paralyzed 18-year-old who had the use of his right hand only.

May jumped up on the patient’s lap, dropped her tennis ball in his right hand and proceeded to play a modified game of fetch. He’d drop the ball on the ground, she’d retrieve it, jump back up on the boy and place it back in his right hand, Schwertfeger remembered.

“They did that for half an hour. Nobody talked,” he said. “That was amazing.”

Those kinds of interactions can boost the morale of patients, increasing motivation and sometimes going as far as to improve physical attributes such as blood pressure, experts say.

“It’s really about establishing a relationship and getting people to feel very comfortable, and have an interaction that’s safe and nurturing,” Schroll said.

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