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Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 18 September 2013

Manny visits children at the Family Relief Nursery
Manny visits children at the Family Relief Nursery most weeks
One Bond One World

Support Pet Partners at its annual fundraising gala event. The One Bond One World fall gala, takes place Sept. 28 at the Nines Hotel. It will include a VIP reception at 5 p.m., followed by a silent auction, dinner and a live auction. America's Veterinarian,  Marty Becker is the celebrity host. And the Delta Spirit of Caring award will be presented during the evening.  Visit the onebond.org website to register for the event.

Manny with Jennifer Self Beverly Brooks Lynn Parsons and Anne Rothert

With Manny at the Family Relief Nursery are (from left) Jennifer Self, Beverly Brooks, Lynn Parsons and Anne Rothert

The little girl never spoke a word.  But staff at Volunteers of America's Family Relief Nursery knew she could talk. Silence was just her way of dealing with everything she'd been through. 

Until one day when Lynn Parsons and her yellow lab Manny came to visit the girl's nursery class.  As Parsons gave her dog commands, a little voice started echoing everything she said.

"Drop the ball Manny."  "Good boy, Manny."

Staff members were amazed, but Relief Nursery Director Anne Rothert says helping this little girl break her silence was just one example of how Manny's visits benefit the children. The pre-schoolers all come from families facing struggles that create high levels of stress.

"There is no pressure from a dog," Rothert says. "Manny has no expectations. He's really predictable and safe, and he doesn't demand anything from her. So it's really safe for her to take her first foray into speaking."

Manny is a therapy dog, and he and Parsons are part of the Pet Partners program, that brings the healing power of animals to humans who need a little unconditional love.  Pet Partners visit hospitals, assisted living centers, the relief nursery and also libraries, where Pet Partners encourage children and readers of any age to Read to a Dog.

"Animals benefit humans," says Jennifer Self, who manages the Pet Partners visiting program. "We have all this research now that shows they lower blood pressure and help reduce stress.

"When we go into situations where there are children, a lot of times, we are there to put a smile on their faces, but we recognize there are therapeutic benefits as well."

Stress is Toxic to Adults and Kids
Reducing stress for these children, all under five years, may help improve their chances to excel at school. Researchers now know that stress is toxic for people of all ages.  And, according to experts, such as New York University Professor Clancy Blair, stress can dramatically hurt developing brains, reducing children's ability to concentrate, remember and learn.  High levels of stress are one reason why children in poverty lag behind in school.

Volunteers of America has opened two family relief nurseries— one in inner Southeast Portland; the other in Rockwood. They serve about 120 families a year,  focusing on children aged birth to five, with average time in the program around 18 months. Need for the service is high. The East county nursery had a waiting list from the day it opened. 

For three hours, twice a week, stressed parents have time to take care of business, knowing that their children are safe.  

"The goal is to help the families stabilize and be solid. Then the kids transition to Head Start or kindergarten," Rothert says.

"We focus on giving the kids support and a safe place so they can go about their natural development,"

To set up an intake at the VOA Family Relief Nursery call 503-236-8492 

The Healing Power of Pet Partners
Animals can bring about dramatic changes in people.

Self says one mother asked her to bring a therapy dog into the room where her daughter lay in a coma. They laid the daughter's hand on the dog's fuzzy head for a while, and during the visit the dog also  licked her hand.

Later that afternoon the young woman woke from her coma, and she had no problem recalling that she'd been visited by a dog.

That's the power of a pet partner, Self says.

The program includes, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, horses, pigs, even lamas.  They have to be legal pets, so no monkeys are allowed –and no reptiles.

"We have some great lamas that do this work," Self says.

Pet Partners must have the right temperament. They must be calm, gentle and predictable.  The nonprofit trains all the pets and their humans, which can cost up to $60,000.

Every two years, the nonprofit reevaluates the pets to make sure they are still happy and suited to the work.

Parsons and Self say that when the dogs' work jackets go on, they immediately know they are on the job. 

"The animals benefit the people they visit," Self says, "but it's not free. They have to be groomed and bathed within 24 hours of a visit. They have to have their nails trimmed and their paws cleaned."

Started 36 years ago by a Portland doctor, Pet Partners now has 11,000 animal therapy teams visiting more than 1 million people across the country. 

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