Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kids summon words to save animals

Buddy the Beagle gives Alex Bezugly a sniff.

Right on schedule, Buddy pads into a guest appearance that’s going to save his life. But the Beagle-Basset mix is completely oblivious to the significance of the meeting. Instead, he concentrates on sniffing his way around the room, as hound dogs tend to do.

The lack of focus on his future won’t hurt Buddy’s chances. He’s free to be himself. His sniffing habit will be presented to potential adopters as an endearing quality.

Meet Buddy’s promoters: Mrs. Davis’ fifth grade class.

Buddy is more fortunate than most shelter animals. He’s got 26 Kendall Elementary School kids on his side, and they are dedicated to finding him a responsible new home. These mini marketers are special for many reasons, not the least of which is their age. At 10, these children have a more sophisticated knowledge of animal welfare issues than most adults I encounter.

While Buddy does his hound dog thing, the kids look him over and pepper Whatcom Humane Society community outreach director Laura Clark with questions about the low-lying canine. Laura tells the children that Buddy was given away twice in two weeks before he landed at her shelter. She describes him as friendly and mellow, and a bit overweight.

“Would he be a good dog for a jogger?” Laura asks the kids.

“Maybe a jogger, but not a runner,” pipes up one boy.

After the kids get the scoop on Buddy, they mobilize into action. Some spend time getting to know the dog better. The rest break into small groups and head for the circular bank of classroom computers. They settle in immediately, and start hammering out Buddy’s tale of woe on the keyboards in a variety of formats -- news stories, advertisements, fictional accounts, songs and poems, even a drawing or two.

The format of their pieces and the partners they choose to work with is up to them. More rules aren’t required, because rules aren’t the motivation for these kids to work hard and turn in first-rate projects.

It’s the animals’ lives that are at stake.

“This has made writing important,” says Alex Bezugly, 10.

Each week, Laura brings a kid-friendly shelter animal to Judy Davis’ class for about 45 minutes -- dogs, cats, even a chicken. It’s the saddest cases that resonate most sharply.

“They would see the abandoned animals, and they seemed to really relate,” Laura says. “They would really identify with that animal, and have empathy for the hard-luck stories.”

Kids who used to hand in two or three sentences just a few months ago are writing pages now. That’s because they know their work will immediately be posted on Whatcom Humane Society’s website along with the animal’s photos. And that drives them. They are compelled to put the animal’s best paw forward in the quest to find them a responsible new home.

“These animals are amazing,” says Ridge Buecking, 10. “It’s cool to write about them and have people read our work.”

Recent test scores from this class reflect the fervor with which the kids are attacking their mission. Writing and reading marks have dramatically improved from where they sat in October when the humane education program began. Even math marks are better when essay answers are required for the questions.

It’s the brainchild of two animal lovers -- Laura Clark from Whatcom Humane Society, and Judy Davis, a veteran schoolteacher with 25 years in education. Besides being friends who share a love of animals, they are also neighbors who live on acreage not far from the elementary school.

I asked Laura how the program, which is just finishing its first year, took flight.

“Judy and I cooked it up while we were hiking in the woods,” Laura says. “We solve the world’s problems when we’re hiking.”

It took two years for them to turn their glimmer of an idea into a real live program.

“It’s hard to find a principal who’s willing to take a chance on it,” Judy says.

She’s found a supporter in principal Charles Burleigh, who views it as a rich experience for the kids, particularly given the school’s demographics. Kendall Elementary is in the foothills of the Mount Baker National Forest, which is a relatively remote location, “so it’s important to have experiences that come to school as opposed to kids walking out the door and having experiences in a city,” Burleigh says.

The region also has the cheapest housing in Whatcom County, which tends to draw poor families. Three-quarters of the kids who attend Kendall receive free or subsidized lunches, and all get free breakfast.

“They’ll never forget this,” Burleigh says. “This helps them have a more well-rounded education.”

Besides boning up on their writing abilities, the children also develop social and communication skills, teamwork, empathy and compassion.

The power of compassion is evident. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response from everyone the program touches. It’s already the most talked-about item at parent-teacher conferences, Judy says, and it’s nearly always the first thing the parents mention when they sit down with her -- that it’s their child’s favorite time of the week.

And it’s pretty sweet for the animals, too.

Just ask Buddy.

The Kendall kids get to know Buddy. He's since been adopted. Their hard work helped find him a home.

Buddy puts his nose into smelling his surroundings.

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