Friday, 20 September 2013

Lowcountry Dog Magazine: Healing Species

by Kelly Rae Smith
for the Aug/Sept 2013 issue of Lowcountry Dog Magazine

As inhumane acts of violence increasingly take precedence in headlines and television news coverage, we often turn our heads away from the bleakness, wondering how could one attempt  to turn it all around? Is humanity too far gone? One South Carolina woman is resolute that no, it’s not too late, and she’s on a mission to literally get to the heart of the matter.

A dog named Gravey inspired attorney and humanitarian Cheri Brown Thompson to start Healing Species, an organization that uses rescue dogs, with their own stories of neglect and abuse, to teach students about compassion, empathy, advocacy, and empowerment in order to fundamentally build character, discourage violence and bullying, and thus change lives.

The curriculum is designed for elementary school kids but also expands to middle and high school-age students, and it involves one 45-minute session taught weekly for 12 to 13 consecutive weeks until an entire grade level is covered. Right now, there are three Charleston elementary schools that are involved in and have found success with the program, along with one Berkeley school and one also in Dorchester county.

“Our program focuses on violence and bullying prevention through compassion education,” Adele Little, director of Healing Species, says, “realizing that a child’s actions are determined by their thoughts, which are determined by their heart—what they think and feel. So if we can change a  child’s heart at an early age,  then we can change the way that they think, and that changes their actions. It gives them power to turn things around.”

Thompson realized she could help give children this power and founded Healing Species 15 years ago after two occurrences.

One: As a law student, Thompson was struck that there is such a thing as depraved-heart crimes, which are murder, rape, and violent assault. The direct connection between animal cruelty and human violence became apparent, and her thesis concluded that 99 percent of depraved-heart criminals were abused or neglected as children, and then those people eventually took out their aggression on the only things they could control: animals. And that of course morphed into violence on humans. Equipped with the knowledge that crime is a matter of the heart, Thompson began to ponder how she could get to the root of problem.

And then came the second occurrence: Gravey.

Thompson was on her way to class at The University of South Carolina Law School one day in 1999 when a stray dog caught her eye. Emaciated, covered in mange, and nearly dead, the dog’s appearance caused Thompson to pull over and cry her eyes out. She offered all she had, a Pop-Tart, but the timid creature was understandably untrusting. That didn’t stop Thompson.

She came back for the dog she named Gravey every single day for a month, until Thompson’s kindness broke the barrier, and a reassured Gravey let the heavy-hearted law student take her home to be cared for.

 And that’s how the idea for this nonprofit was born. Thompson knew the hearts of the children had to be reached before they were depraved, and who better to teach them about abuse and neglect than animals who have experienced, and survived, these circumstances themselves?

“Each dog that enters a classroom with an instructor has their own story of abuse or neglect,” Little says. “Somebody didn’t want them at some point. Healing Species has a rescue and adoption as part of the outreach, and we rescue dogs that nobody is taking care of. They’ve all got a story of being abused or neglected. That story is the very first story that is told, and immediately the kids are engaged because you have this live visual aid that is teaching about the beginning of a story and the ending of a story.”

There are carefully outlined lessons involving games, vocabulary words, activities, and animals that are followed each week,  including one called Keep Your Heart. It explains that people who have lost part of their heart could try to hurt you, but you must not use that to throw away your own heart. Keep Your Heart encourages children to one, keep their heart strong by telling a trusted adult if they have been hit or abused, and to, two, grieve if they’ve been hurt rather than keeping it in only to take it out on someone else later on. The third instruction is to give love. “And that’s the best part,” Little says. “That’s when we get to practice in the classroom and give love to the dog. We want to start giving love right away after somebody has hurt us because that is going make us stronger.”

Instructors also explain that there’s fake power that’s based on fear, control, and weakness, and then there’s true power that comes having respect for others. The students learn lessons about bullying: why people bully others, why they may themselves bully others. And they’re taught, with the help of the live dog there, to make choices based on empathy and compassion, based on what they would do to help a dog. “We have those teaching moments all in the classrooms where they start to identify not only do animals have feelings, but then the kids become more sensitive to the person next to them and their feelings, and then it just grows.”

The result? Schools say the kids have less behavioral problems and more empathy as a result of the program. And before they leave for middle school, Healing Species goes back to the kids in the fifth grade for two booster lessons, reminding them of the tools they’ve gained that could pave the way for a great life.

“Healing Species gives them empowerment to overcome barriers such as abuse or neglect or bullying in their own lives, how to see a future for themselves. They learn the steps that it takes to make responsible choices, choices that make them feel good about their lives. It gives them hope.” 

One story of hope that the kids have proven to remember for years and years to come? Gravey’s story. And although Gravey has passed away now, it is still an encouragement to know that, thanks to Thompson and her ability to really see and heal Gravey’s heart, the majority of her 13 years were full of love.

What Else?

So far, Healing Species expands beyond South Carolina, and into Wisconsin, California, Texas, Missouri, and even New Zealand.

Trident United Way partnered with Healing Species last year with a matching funds grant.

Pet Helpers has also partnered with the nonprofit to assist with services, connections, field trips, and matching funds.

Join the cause: Visit the Get Involved section of to learn about volunteer opportunities and ways to help costs.

Painter Charlynn Knight to share her skills with area students

by Kelly Rae Smith
When Charlynn Knight began exploring art as a child with her elementary school art teacher Joanne King, she could have never guessed that one day it would all come full circle. The two recently crossed paths again when Knight walked into a watercolor class she was teaching at Karen's Korner Frame and Art Gallery in Mt. Pleasant. Her old art teacher was among her students, and it was she who suggested that Knight look into the North Charleston artist-in-residence program.
"It's pretty cool to be teaching my elementary school art teacher watercolors," Knight says. "She was such an inspiration to me and helped spark my passion for art at an early age, and for her to take my class and recommend me for the artist-in-residence program was an honor."
Knight's acceptance into the program offers her an opportunity to work with 36 different schools across North Charleston throughout the 2013-14 school year, offering artistic guidance and inspiration to everyone from young children to young adults.
"I will be working with elementary up to high school ages along with Carolina Youth Development Center," Knight says. "This allows me to talk to the kids about being an artist here in Charleston and sharing with them my passion for art — and hopefully spark interest in one, if not many of them to pursue an interest in art, and spark their inner creativity. I'll be sharing many fun techniques with working with watercolors that I use every day in my own paintings." Knight paints mainly landscapes and architectural paintings, making use of intense colors and small, swift brushstrokes.
Her visual arts expertise is available upon the request of the schools, plus she's able to lead workshops with seniors in community settings, such as assisted living facilities, and organizations offering youth programs. Her experience and enthusiasm for any creative challenge seems to be what made her perfect for the part.
"Charlynn is a seasoned artist and teacher, having the combination of experience and talent we hope for in offering these programs to a wide range of ages in a variety of settings in North Charleston," says Nancy Rodriguez, the City of North Charleston's cultural arts coordinator. "She's excited to share her love for art and in particular for the medium of watercolor and the interesting techniques she's learned through the years. Her passion for art is contagious and she believes wholeheartedly in the benefits of developing creativity."
Knight plans to work closely with as many students as possible to inspire both budding artists and anyone in search of a new form of expression. "Through the opportunities of this residency program, I can share how art is a wonderful tool to allow our children to express themselves and have a break from the rigorous testing and structured curriculums," she says. "Art is a way to remind us and our kids to just be, and enjoy color, textures, shapes, and have fun through a pencil or paint brush. It opens up our eyes to see our world in a new and unique way."
See Charlynn Knight's work at Karen's Korner in Mt. Pleasant, Laura Alberts on Daniel Island, or at her own West Ashley studio. The North Charleston City Gallery will also hang her work this January. For more information, visit her website at

The IMPROVables kick off improv with a game show twist

by Kelly Rae Smith
Keep a close eye on the IMPROVables, a brand new Charleston comedy troupe specializing in a Whose Line Is It Anyway-style game. These funny people found each other in various spots on the local comedy scene and made their ties official in May, when they gave the group a name. It's not even the end of the summer, and their calendar is already filling up as they set out to take over Charleston.
The eight-person troupe comprises Moey Conway, Brian Carter, Deshawn Christopher Mason, Steve LaRowe, Kari Hanson, Lain Healey, Robert Thomas, and Kat LeeHong. Their backgrounds are all over the place, from a bartender to a student to a U.S. Army lieutenant. Take Carter, the co-leader of the pack. He's an acupuncturist turned digital marketing consultant and stand-up extraordinaire, and he takes his act so seriously that he has a carefully composed spreadsheet detailing every joke he's told, the audience's reaction, and its geographical context. But it takes a good organizer or two to get an idea off the ground, which is what happened when he met Moey Conway. She's a Chicago-trained improviser and local comedian who hosts a stand-up night at Castaways Bar and Grille, where the IMPROVables first debuted.
"We were both frustrated and wanted to make more happen for ourselves," Carter says. "When I learned she had eight years of improv background, I suggested we get together and do some games. We initially thought we'd do a two-person show. But before we knew it, we had invited several people to join in."
Those who hopped on board all took a big chance. Some have worked in comedy for years, but for a couple of them, getting all unpredictable onstage in front of an expectant audience is a risk they've taken on fairly recently. But with a full set involving around 20 games that include audience participation, the laughs are already rolling in, as are the bookings. It seems all agree this crew is a miraculous mashup.
'Everyone is a vital part of the group and more importantly, they make amazing friends," Mason says. "It's really incredible when you're able to find a group synergy that makes whatever task that you've set out to complete seem easy. First step improv, next step world domination. You know, in the name of vigilante justice."
Catch the IMPROVables on Sept. 6 at Woolfe Street Playhouse and Sept. 19 and Oct. 11 at the James F. Dean Theater in Summerville.

Producer Jeffrey Jelks breaking down walls

"I have a letter up on my bulletin board that I must have written when I was eight years old, and it is instructing my cousins, who were coming to visit for the summer, to make sure they knew which commercials they wanted to recreate because we were gonna put on a show," theater producer Jeffery Jelks says. "They would come and visit, and I would write, produce, and direct our evenings of entertainment. Being involved in theater is all that I have ever wanted to do. There is nothing like the emotion that emanates from the stage when everything works in sync. It is truly magical."
Charleston audiences may remember indie producer Jelks and his passion for the stage from last June's reading of RED, a play by Letitia Guillory, at PURE Theatre. It was read to a packed house and followed by a Q&A session with the playwright, designed to help the audience realize the play's potential onstage. He hopes to bring a full production to life soon with his production company, Breaking the Wall Productions.
Jelks began Breaking the Wall as a way to introduce Charleston audiences to brand-new works. His vision is firmly on the future, and he wants to make projects come alive in new and interesting ways. That's what he's doing with Brussel Sprouts, a one-act comedy he plans to take to a different venue in Charleston once a month. The play will be a recurring "evening of collaborative art" that he hopes will live on and evolve time after time. That's one of his favorite things about the art of theater.
"I love the process," Jelks says. "I love getting a project on its feet. I love watching the audience's reactions. I love seeing actors forget they are acting and just begin to live on the stage. I love seeing artists realize that everything they need is inside of them, and if they trust and let it out, it will all be OK. I love helping people achieve their dreams because that truly makes me happy. And I love the fact that art can make a difference."