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.
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 www.healingspecies.org to learn about volunteer opportunities and ways to help costs.