Trigger warning: This story contains descriptions and information about a school shooting, which may be triggering to mass violence survivors or to the family and/or friends of victims. If you or someone you know is struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, please seek help. You can call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 for 24/7 assistance.
As a Coral Springs/Parkland native, my community is forever altered after the February 14th school shooting that took 17 lives, and we are still grieving. Through this tragedy, we as a community have begun to come together to start the healing process. Though it’s a long road, organizations like the Humane Society of Broward County (HSBC) have been lending a helping paw in providing comfort to our grieving community.
The HSBC’s Canines for Community Resilience Program in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, seeks to provide joy, healing, and love by bringing therapy animals to those in need. Partnered with almost every organization in Broward County, the Canines for Community Resilience Program works directly with the school board of Broward County, hospitals, rehab facilities, nursing homes, libraries, and offers specialized volunteer and dog team programs for new potential therapy animals.
I had the pleasure of meeting with program’s manager, Marni Bellavia, and her Mini Australian Shepherd, Karma, to talk about the program’s role in providing comfort and healing after the MSD tragedy.
Marni, an avid animal lover and passionate change agent was immediately moved to get the Canines for Community Resilience dogs involved in welcoming the students back on campus to help heal a shaken community.
“Within just a few blocks of MSD, there are several elementary and middle schools,” she said. “Because they didn’t catch the shooter right away, students as young as 5 and 6 years old had to evacuate the same way with their hands in the air, on the shoulders, and had to hide underneath desks. It’s a very traumatic situation for the teenagers, let alone for the young elementary school students.”
The dogs welcomed students back at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the surrounding schools, helped heal the first responders, the 911 dispatchers, and those injured at hospitals, and provided comfort to grieving families at funerals and vigils for the 17 lives lost. Some MSD students who were at first too traumatized to talk about the incident gravitated towards the dogs and found themselves talking to the dogs about their experience. Others, who couldn’t open up, silently grieved with the therapy dogs comforting them in their lap. Animals play a key role in providing comfort and healing because they provide unconditional love and support, and no words are needed.
HSBC’s Animal Assisted Therapy Program is not only limited to providing therapy dogs. Cats, birds, ferrets, guinea pigs, rabbits, horses, donkeys, and pot-bellied pigs are also part of the program. The HSBC proudly sent an emergency response team of twenty Canines for Community Resilience dogs, free of charge, to every school, organization, or group that was in need after the MSD tragedy.
“You feel really good about having somebody say, ‘Thank you for bringing your dog. Thank you for letting that dog provide comfort for us in a time where the thought of healing is so far away that you can’t imagine ever being okay again.’ To be able to bring in the dogs and interact with the grieving community made me feel like I was part of healing the community, even if it was momentarily,” Marni explained.
You never think a tragedy like this can happen in your community, until it does. It’s unexpected, it shakes you to your core, and for the students and their families, healing can sometimes seem impossible; however, Marni and the Canines for Community Resilience are helping us heal. We will rise above, but we will never forget. Together we are MSD strong.
The Humane Society of Broward County is a private, nonprofit organization supported by donations. To learn more, view pets available for adoption, or to make a donation, visit www.humanebroward.com.