A dozen children swarmed around me and my adopted dog Luke on our first day as a therapy team.

"What's your dog's name?" a shy boy asked.

"Can I pet Luke?" A girl with braided hair giggled, when Luke tried to kiss her cheek.

"Does Luke watch Animal Planet?" another boy asked.

That began my seven-year odyssey with Gabriel's Angels, a group dedicated to ending the cycle of violence in abused, at risk, and abandoned children through pet therapy.

Twelve-year-old Ruth saw Luke and flew out of her seat. "You brought a dog here." She threw her arms around Luke's neck and hugged him. Luke obliged with a generous kiss to Ruth's cheek. "I miss having a dog so much," Ruth said. "I'll love your dog, if that's OK."

"Sure, Luke likes attention."

Ruth had problems. Her pleasant and easygoing behavior suddenly turned belligerent and out of control. I wasn't trained in child psychology but held the group together when Ruth acted out. The children didn't understand how emotional anguish ripped Ruth apart.

Ruth received psychotherapy for the mental torment she had suffered, but the scars obviously penetrated deep into her soul. Luke helped her focus. For the three months Ruth lived at the shelter, we brought a small shred of comfort to a troubled young girl who I hoped was on the road to recovery.

Children bonded with Luke and saw him as a close companion. Over the years, they groomed him, read stories with his paw on their laps, and talked to him as a playmate. They always remembered Luke's name but called me "the dog lady". That tickled me.

Although some of the children were abused, they always thought of clever ways to help maltreated animals. Nine-year-old Jessie heard desperate meows and followed the squeaky voice until she found the kitten stuck inside a leafy bush. Remembering what I had said about animals in need, Jessie ran to the office for help.

"You said find an adult, if there was an animal in need," Jessie said, smiling.

"I'm glad you remembered," I said.

"Margie, the supervisor, brought her inside and we all cleaned her up."

Later, animal lover Margie made room for one more animal in her multi-pet household.

Teaching compassion extended beyond animals. On December 26, 2004 tragedy struck half way around the world. A giant tsunami nearly swallowed up Southeast Asia. Thousands perished, while the savage storm left millions without homes and jobs.

I shared my thoughts with the children about the frightful situation. Despite being homeless, they opened their hearts. With my help, they wrote letters to children in the impacted countries. I wrote cover letters explaining who we were, and mailed them.

A few weeks later, a migraine headache zapped all my energy. As I rested at home, my phone rang. A woman with a foreign accent asked for me. The Sri Lankan ambassador's office had called to say thank you for our generosity and compassion. The woman said as soon as the country recovered from the massive devastation, she'd read our letters to schools across the country.

I felt so proud. I returned to my Gabriel's Angels volunteer work at the homeless shelter the next week and told the children the good news.

Age crept up on Luke. By fall 2008, my dog had to be at least twelve years old. His spirits were as sunny as ever, but he had slowed down.

Seven years with Gabriel's Angels changed my life. I saw the hardships of homelessness and ruptured family ties. Homelessness for the children involved leaving behind close friends, familiar neighborhoods, beloved pets, and comfortable schools. Luke cuddled with the children and kissed a few cheeks. He rested his paw on kids who sat alone.

Together, we cared, we loved, and we extended ourselves to make a difference to children who needed us. I hope their world is better because we were there.


Debra J. Whiteis a freelance writer (www.debrajwhite.com). She lives in Tempe, Arizona with a rescued dog. She volunteers at the Phoenix Animal Care Coalition, the Arizona Animal Welfare League, Sierra Club, and Sky Harbor Airport and was a former volunteer with Gabriel's Angels.

This story originally appeared in Angel Animals and Debra graciously gave me permission to publish it on my website.



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