BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Teacher Mary Coston Bell has a passion for students with special needs. “This population is where I feel most at home,” she explains with eyes full of emotion.
That’s why she took a job two years ago at Jefferson County’s Burkett Center. It’s a multi-handicap center that serves students from age 3, all the way to 21.
“We work on a lot of functional skills at the Burkett center, communications and self-help,” says Bell.
So, she turned to Hand In Paw.
“I was trying to figure out ways that I could provide my kids access the world around them and what better way to do that than through animal assisted therapy. I applied to Hand in Paw and they came and it’s just been wonderful,” says Bell.
For the past year, her class has had bi-weekly visits from a Great Dane named Saban. Yes that’s after Nick Saban.
Saban’s owner Cammie Hallmark, says Saban was born to help those in need.
“I just always felt that Saban was a really special dog and wanted to be able to share him with other people, just looking for a way to let other people experience the joy he brings us. When we found hand in paw it was just a match made. We are thrilled,” says Hallmark.
She says seeing the children light up when Saban walks in the classroom shows her just how important animal assisted therapy is.
“It makes you feel really special to have those moments that you know that you’re in the right place and he’s doing the job he is supposed to be doing,” says Hallmark.
Bell says Saban’s job, is changing her students’ lives.
“We’re getting communication out of the kids that we didn’t have before. The kids are loosening up and excited to see Saban. It’s been a great experience and that’s the purpose of animal assisted therapy,” says Bell.
Her students are kindergarten through 3rd grade. Each has their unique handicap and need. Each has an individualized education plan (IEP) that looks very different. But one thing is the same across the board. Every student wants more learning time with Saban.
“Saban has elicited so much language in the classroom. We have students who are requesting more of Saban, they are requesting a turn to say hello to him, to pet him, to put a hat on him. That’s something we weren’t seeing before that exchange of communication. So it’s incredibly neat to see a dog bring that out and it’s going to benefit them for the rest of their life,” says Bell.
Saban and his owner are both volunteers. They completed Hand in Paw’s extensive training program and now visit schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. The goal, to improve a person’s health and well being.
“They go through pretty rigorous training to become a volunteer team with hand in paw. We do training at our facility and they have to go through an evaluation and then we pair them up with organizations throughout Jefferson county,” says the director of Hand in Paws Volunteer Program Kiersten Atkinson.
Right now there are over one hundred volunteer teams, serving more than one hundred facilities in Jefferson, Shelby and Tuscaloosa counties.
“We are so grateful to those volunteers who put their heart and soul into it. They are truly amazing people, and their dogs are amazing animals,” says Ashley Foster with Hand In Paw.
It’s not just dogs either.
“We have had a few goats, a mini horse, a rat, a guinea pig. We currently have two cats. One is hairless. We accept all sorts of animals, so long as they have the right temperament and go through the basic training then they are welcome to serve as therapy animals,” says Foster.
Right now, there are at least one hundred facilities on Hand in Paw’s waiting list. They are always looking for new volunteer teams too. If you’re interested in volunteering, or taking part in events to support Hand In Paw, check out their website.