The Other 60 Percent

Animal therapists provide solace, training

Amy Pickett and Basil operate as a team. Photo by John Johnston, courtesy of the Colorado Health Foundation

The little girl had lost a parent to cancer, and the pain was so great she could not speak of it. Not to anyone – except Basil.

Slowly, over several sessions, the story of the girl’s crushing loss was whispered into Basil’s soft ear. And Basil, a 6-year-old golden retriever, never failed to be a good listener.

“Basil hears many different types of stories,” said Amy Pickett, a mental health therapist at Sheridan Health Services, the school-based health clinic at Sheridan Middle School in the Sheridan school district.

She’s also Basil’s owner and co-worker.

“He gets lots of kids that have experienced a lot of trauma,” she said. “They’re more comfortable talking with him.”

Animals provide physical, mental health therapy

Basil is part of a growing cadre of animals who are using their unique skills to provide both physical and mental health therapy to children. Animal-assisted therapy began to emerge in the 1990s, and today is a widely-recognized specialty. The University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, for example, home of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, now offers a certificate program in animal-assisted therapy.

Pickett believes Basil – who was trained through the Delta Society – is the only credentialed therapy animal actually working in a school-based health clinic in Colorado. But across the state, many school therapists do connect children to off-campus animal-assisted therapeutic programs whenever possible.

Horses for Change brings youngsters to the Gunnison rodeo grounds to work with horses to help build a variety of skills.

“Whether it’s dogs or horses or rabbits, there is something about animals that brings out for most people – especially children – their softer side. They open up our hearts,” said Amanda Graham, program supervisor of the Gunnison office of the Midwestern Colorado Center for Mental Health, which provides mental health services in a six-county area of southwest Colorado.

Graham, a Licensed Professional Counselor, also works with Horses for Change, a Gunnison-based horse therapy program that specializes in trauma, anxiety, grief and loss in children as well as adults.

In the past year, Horses for Change worked with 45 to 50 local children at the Gunnison rodeo grounds, most of the youngsters having been referred by school professionals. Horses for Change is one of at least 15 programs in Colorado affiliated with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

“For a child whose heart may have been broken, having that unconditional love, that interaction with a creature that’s not judging them is so powerful,” Graham said. “Animals give complete, instant feedback. They don’t mince words. They don’t lie. Most children don’t either. They operate on levels that are very much alike.”

More than a warm hug

Beyond simply being a furry friend to hug, therapy animals are often used to teach socially awkward children desired behaviors. Graham, for example, has a whole series of on-the-ground horse-related activities – none of which involve actually riding an animal – that she uses with young clients.

The whole idea is to set up activities such as catching and haltering a horse that reflect the challenges children meet in their day-to-day lives, she said.

“Many people liken this to a ropes course, where you learn cooperation and to face your fears. It’s the same with horses,” she said. “Horses pick up our non-verbal language. If we’re being disruptive or not paying attention, horses will react to that. They reflect our own behavior to us. So if a boy is standing there in tears because the horse keeps walking away, that gives us the opportunity to say ‘What could you do differently? What’s working and what’s not?’ ”

Basil does the same thing with students in Sheridan. He’s especially good at teaching disruptive children about boundaries, Pickett said.

“I’ll ask a kid to teach Basil to sit,” she said. “They’ll work with him teaching him tricks, which Basil of course already knows. But if they try to crowd Basil, he won’t do what they ask. And that parallels their everyday life.”

Pickett said Basil is also good at working with children’s parents.

“When parents come in, and they’re experiencing stress, they’ll pet Basil and they’ll feel much more comfortable and at ease talking to me.”

And, at luck would have it, Basil’s “office” is right across the hall from the clinic treatment room where children go to get immunization shots. The dog also helps out there a lot too.

“If a kid is screaming, I’ll come in there with him, and they hug him and pet him. It helps them be less traumatized by the shots,” Pickett said.

Potential downsides: allergies, liability issues

Certainly not all school-based health clinics are likely to get animals like Basil. Allergies may be an issue in some schools, as is liability insurance. Pickett has been able to successfully negotiate both those potential challenges for Basil.

“In the three years I’ve been doing this, I can only think of two students who couldn’t see Basil because of allergies,” she said. “And I had one boy who had an allergy but his parents were so supportive of this that he took Benadryl before seeing Basil.”

Pickett also will not allow children with a history of abusing animals to be around Basil.

She likes to encourage pet-less families to think about adopting an animal if they can afford it.

“Pets, in general, can just help so many kids,” she said. “A lot of time, a pet is the one secure being in a child’s life that they can relate to and trust. Having a pet is a healthy, helpful thing in a child’s life.”

Poverty in America

Woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant Memphis schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.

*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.