Animals help foster empathy among at-risk kids in Collingwood

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The Georgian Triangle Humane Society is hoping to foster empathy in local students through a connection with animals.

The organization has a program called Humane Education, an initiative that started last year and was funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

Karen Marsh, the humane education co-ordinator for the GTHS, said she visits local schools, Collingwood Youth Center, Breaking Down Barriers and other youth organizations in the community. Overall, Marsh said they have connected with more than 1,300 young people.

“We want to foster empathy and compassion with every interaction we have with them,” she said.

However, the program has a focus on helping at-risk youth.

She said they deliver the program by visiting classrooms for four 90-minute sessions, which culminates with a trip to the shelter.

Group workshops include two seven-week programs that focus on animal welfare, with youth taught how to be responsible pet owners and sitters.

The third is a one-on-one mentorship program where they work with students from the Simcoe County District School Board’s alternative education stream.

Marsh said many of these students have difficulty functioning in the classroom for any number of reasons, including anxiety.

“What we find, the first step, is interaction with animals, it seems to break down barriers,” Marsh said. “It opens up and you’re talking about all kinds of different issues.”

Kellie Casey is a teacher at the alternative school and said the program has been a success so far. She said many of the youth she works with are under 18, often with mental health barriers, addictions, raising young children, struggling with housing and food or event homeless.

“The GTHS is more than a safe haven for animals in need — it is also a safe and therapeutic haven for our community’s youth at risk,” she said. “These youth develop very special friendships both with the animals and with other volunteers. Repeatedly I see students’ confidence, self-worth and sense of belonging flourish.”

Casey said she has seen a change in the attitude of a number of students as a result of being involved in the program.

“We talk about how the animals come to be the way they are and what they need in their lives; most often the youth then reflect on their own situation and needs too,” she said. “They see animals have an opportunity for a better life and we talk about the youth’s opportunities too. The parallels are empowering.”

Marsh is a certified teacher with 24 years experience and she said they are going to be delivering the program at Collingwood Collegiate Institute this fall.

She said they are looking to obtain a three-year grant from the Trillium Foundation in order to grow the program

Sonya Reichel, executive director for the humane society, said the program helps the organization in their goal of promoting animal welfare.

“The youth that enter our Humane Education are future ambassadors of animal welfare in our community,” she said.

Stay informed on GTHS events, initiatives and programs. Learn how the GTHS team is serving the pets and people of the South Georgian Bay Area. Read heart-warming Happy Tails about GTHS Alumni. See a lot of really cute pictures of dogs and cats!