March 25 was a unique day at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School. The students tuned in to watch West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s press briefing.
While the main topic of the briefing was the COVID-19 update on the state’s all green map, the students were listening carefully for another announcement. Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice have organized the first statewide school therapy dog program called “Friends with Paws.”
The students listened intently and were thrilled to hear that GBEMS was selected as one of four schools to participate in the program.
The staff – who already knew about the selection – was relieved to finally be able to share the secret with the students.
Principal Shana Alderman, guidance counselor Ira Brown and Community-in-Schools coordinator Jonathan Paul found out about the selection in February, when they were invited to the governor’s mansion.
“We were asked to come to the governor’s mansion,” Paul said. “That’s when they revealed that we were one of the schools that they wanted to talk to about the program.”
“I guess the governor’s wife came to the school to review the Community-in-Schools program, and she was impressed with the school and the kids,” Brown said.
“They reiterated several times that they were really impressed with our kids,” Alderman added.
To Brown, the selection was ironic. As the school’s guidance counselor, he works with students every day, helping them with their issues and giving them an opportunity to share their feelings about whatever is going on in their life and at school.
This year has been especially rough for the school with the loss of second grade student Braelynn Peteete.
Just a day after the administration learned the school would receive a therapy dog, Brown was counseling a second grader, a friend of Peteete’s. Every time the student talks to Brown, she grabs a stuffed dog and strokes its fur as she talks about what is on her mind.
One day, as she stroked the fake fur, she shared an idea with Brown.
“She just started going on about how she wished we had a dog,” he said. “She said, ‘Mr. Brown, this school needs a dog.’ It was a sign to me that this is what we needed. She had no idea that the day before we were down at the governor’s mansion talking about this. She just knew the healing that that dog could bring if it was here.”
The student went on to tell Brown that if the stuffed animal could help her, then a real dog could help the students even more.
“When people get sad and stuff – because this year – we lost somebody and it’s been hard for everybody,” she said, explaining why she thought a dog would be good for the school.
“People who are sad some days, if they could just visit the dog, they could feel better,” she continued. “Cause a dog can tell how you’re feeling, and you could read to them. It’s good for other kids to be experienced with a dog. Our school is pretty lucky, and those kids can be, too.”
The therapy dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Jet will come to Green Bank in June and members of the staff will train with him to be ready for the 2022-2023 school year.
“I just can’t wait to meet him,” the second grader said, as she stroked the stuffed dog.
Alderman, Brown and Paul also can’t wait to meet Jet. They will be three of the staff members trained to work with him, as well as preschool aide Carolyn Pennington, who will be the primary handler.
The staff will learn a list of commands to give Jet, who will spend every weekday at the school, visiting classrooms and spending time with individual students, as he is needed.
“He will come to school every day,” Alderman said. “He will probably primarily stay in the pre-k room because that’s where [Pennington] is employed. He’ll have a rotation where he’ll go through different classes. [The students] will have jobs because they will have to walk him, make sure he has water and food. We can’t depend on pre-k to do that all the time, so somebody else is going to have to pitch in.”
The school is excited to have Jet join the “staff” and feels he will do a lot of good for the students and the staff.
“A lot of our kids have come from trauma,” Alderman said. “With drugs, divorce, all kinds of things that impact kids. I think it’s going to be a great benefit.”
“Dogs are non-judgmental,” Paul added. “They’ll always love you. People cannot always do that, so there’s a stability there that we can’t always offer. The judgment-free zone with the dog.”
In addition to providing love and support for children dealing with difficult issues, Jet will also offer academic support. Students will have time to read to him which will help them improve their reading skills and provide a little entertainment during the day.
While Jet is the property of GBEMS and will be stationed at the school, Brown said he feels it is possible to send Jet to visit other schools if there is a traumatic event or if there are students who would benefit from the help of a therapy dog.
“I think he will be a great support for our school and our community,” Alderman said.
The community has already reached out to help in welcoming Jet to the school. Dr. Stacy Tawney, owner of Pocahontas Veterinary Services, has offered her services at a free or reduced rate for Jet, and members of the community have offered to provide food him.
Community -in-Schools is providing $500 in startup funds for the program.
While students – and teachers – look forward to June, the beginning of summer, those at GBEMS have a new reason to look forward to June – the arrival of Jet, the therapy dog.
“I’m just excited,” Alderman said. “The kids are excited. I think he’s going to fit right in around here, and he’s already so loved. I think he’s going to be perfect here.”