By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
When Lusia MacPherson retired from a nearly 50-year career in education, she was ready to go back to school. This time, she planned to take her miniature schnauzer, Mooc, along with her.
Once a week during the school year, MacPherson and Mooc visit Greystone Elementary School teacher Melissa Summers’ English Language Learning classroom.
According to Hand in Paw, the Sit, Stay, Read! program was designed to help students who struggle with reading by creating an inclusive learning environment and using books that explore social and emotional themes as well as multicultural books to celebrate diversity and equality.
“In addition to having the students read, the teacher will sometimes do a question of the day,” she added. “That gives the students the opportunity to talk and converse. They are practicing their conversation and communication skills.”
MacPherson had known for a while that she wanted to volunteer for Hand in Paw in schools, but she waited until her retirement to pursue it.
“I felt strongly that this was an important experience for the students,” MacPherson said. “It is so beneficial to their language and reading development.”
During the spring of 2018, as she prepared to retire as Shelby County Schools supervisor of gifted education and advanced programs, she began taking Mooc to Hand in Paw to complete screenings.
That summer, Mooc completed his evaluations, and the duo was able to begin its volunteer work the next school year.
“Schools are my comfort zone,” MacPherson said. They also happened to be a place where Mooc thrives.
During their visits, Mooc is read to by students, serving not only as a cute and cuddly audience but as a nonjudgmental and unbiased listener.
Not only has Mooc showcased the ideal temperament for animal-assisted therapy work, he always has been drawn to kids.
“Even when I would take him walking some place – whether a store or trail – he would always get excited when he saw children, so I knew that (Sit, Stay, Read) was going to be the area that he enjoyed.”
In a regular school year, Mooc would don his yellow Hand in Paw bandana and go to work each Monday, meeting kids in their own classroom.
MacPherson also has created a few picture books featuring photos of Mooc woven together by a story. She typically will gift these books to teachers for their classroom library. During the pandemic, Hand in Paw shared a video of Mooc “reading” the story “Mooc and Blue Bear,” about Mooc searching around the house for his favorite toy.
In the age of virtual learning, both MacPherson and Mooc have adapted to meeting their students through a screen.
“When we would go in person, the dogs get so used to the routine,” she said. “When we would put that yellow Hand in Paw scarf on, he would get so excited. He knew we were going to school.
“Now, when I roll in that chair that he sits on, he knows that he is going to school again. I’m not sure he knows that it’s ‘school’ but he knows it is something fun that he is doing.”
While MacPherson admits she is not technologically savvy, Hand in Paw staff made the transition to Google Meet and Zoom as seamless as they could.
“Even before they were virtually meeting with classrooms, the staff had virtual training, get togethers and provided ways to become more accustomed to the virtual process and stayed connected,” MacPherson said.
For the students MacPherson and Mooc serve, virtual learning already was normal by the time Hand in Paw resumed its programming.
“Having the dog come in every week for them to read to was something that was very readily accepted,” MacPherson said.
She added that the teacher, Summers, has found that Mooc’s weekly visits give the students something to look forward to.
“It’s something that they can consistently depend upon,” MacPherson said. “Even school schedules kept changing all of the time, so this has been a very interesting experience.”
The students’ love of Mooc was apparent on the Monday they returned to school after spring break.
“As soon as the students saw Mooc on the screen, you could hear them all saying, ‘Hi, Mooc!,’” MacPherson said.
Each session, the teacher will pick a student’s name at random to be the first to read. “When she picked out the name, you could hear the student in the background cheering,” MacPherson said.
She gives Hand in Paw a lot of credit for persevering to serve the community against the seemingly insurmountable odds of a pandemic.
“It’s a very forward-thinking group,” MacPherson said. “They are on the cutting edge.”
Throughout the shutdowns, when staff could not continue their typical programming, they continued to reach out to MacPherson and their fellow volunteers through social events such as book clubs.
They also have added a trick training course that MacPherson has been able to mix into her Sit, Stay, Read program.
“How fortunate the Birmingham area is to have this staff that continually tries to come up with innovative ways to reach out,” MacPherson said.
For more information, visit handinpaw.org.
Hand in Paw’s
Mutt Strut 2021 Coming Up
Hand in Paw will host its 11th annual Mutt Strut: Dog-Friendly 5K and 1 Mile Fun Run on April 17. This year’s event will be hosted in a virtual format. Participants can run or walk the race at their leisure at any point on the event date, with Hand in Paw providing a selection of dog-friendly race routes and curated music playlists.
Runners’ furry friends can also participate in the pet costume contest by uploading pictures to the race day portal.
Funds raised will support the organization’s efforts to deploy professionally trained volunteer handler and animal therapy teams to help improve the lives of people in several medical centers, schools and service organizations throughout North Central Alabama and Tuscaloosa.
For more information, visit classy.org/event/mutt-strut-2021/e262416.