BARK for Literacy
From Issue: Volume XX - Number 18
By Aaron Ledesma
For over five years, Beach Animals Reading with Kids, or BARK, has been leaving its mark in the hearts and minds of children across the state. The Long Beach based program reaches out to kids who struggle with literacy and helps them overcome their challenges by having them read aloud to certified therapy dogs. Originally a three-dog organization, BARK has now grown into a 132 dog volunteer program, serving over 90 schools and libraries.
“The kids are making tremendous strides,” tells director and co-founder, Josie Gavieres, between a smile. “It’s just an all around, very rewarding thing for the handlers to do for the dogs and the kids.”
While the dogs enjoy the attention, the children develop a fondness for books as well as their new canine friends. Gavieres recounts a case a few years back when a Placentia summer day care program requested a dog. Upon the dog’s arrival, the day care saw a significant jump in numbers and five more dogs were quickly added to the site’s rotation.
“The supervisor said that for the first time in all her years of summer day care, the kids were getting off the bus in the morning with a book in hand to read during their down time - even on the days the dogs weren’t visiting.”
Participating libraries offer the broadest opportunity for community children to find a pack of reading dogs. Before each visit, a sign-up sheet is posted, yet the program keeps itself available to accommodate walk-ins.
However, schools who utilize BARK’s services are more deliberate when selecting children to work with the dogs. Here, the program focuses on four children at a time who are either reluctant readers, shy or have traumatic home lives. Those four students read with a designated dog one-on-one, for about fifteen to twenty minutes, once a week, for eight weeks.
“The real key that makes this work is that the kids are not told it’s a remedial program,” Gavieres explains. Instead the selected children are told that they’re helping the therapy dogs practice settling down with kids.
While literacy remains the programs main focus, BARK now includes a Humane Education program that teaches kids how to care for their pets at home. Messages touch on a wide range of topics, from what service and therapy dogs do to the importance of spaying and neutering.
Gavieres also works with participating schools on a project called BARK for Troops. BARK takes literacy a step further and asks students to write letters and draw pictures to the soldiers overseas. When all the letters are completed, the students are visited by BARK dogs in full camouflage gear. It’s at this gathering the children learn they just volunteered.
“Without asking their parents for money, without asking for a ride, they just did something on their own,” says Gavieres. “And we explain to them why it’s so important – that the soldiers really appreciate the letters.”
The newest addition to the BARK curriculum is the Be Like a Dog kindness and anti-bullying campaign. Kids receive detailed lessons on how we should be more forgiving and less judgmental, like a dog.
At the end of each year, BARK conducts an evaluation with its schools, asking teachers and counselors to rate the children’s growth in class participation, self confidence, and reading skills. So far this year, participating schools reported an average of 92% of children improving their class participation, 96% improving their self confidence, and 85% improving their reading skills.
As BARK’s student success rate continues to thrive, so does its territory. “We have more libraries and more schools than we can cover,” Gavieres explains. “So we’ll always take more dogs.” All testing for therapy dog certification is conducted in the mid Los Angeles area, however, BARK has sites set up all over Orange and Los Angeles County extending north of Sacramento.
For those who don’t have a dog they’d like to submit for certification, but still wish to help the non-profit, monetary and book donations are always welcome, as well as grant writers and volunteers. “It’s a great thing for Scouts or high school kids who need volunteer hours.”
Volunteer run book drives are big for BARK, as one of their main goals is actually giving books to the kids at the end of their program. So far, the organization has given away more than 15,000 books to children across California. When the children find out the books are theirs to take home, smiles form across the room. For many, this is their first book. But for all of them, it’s a gift they’ll value well after the dogs make their exit.
Parents and children interested in the program have a number of opportunities this month to meet the dogs. On the 8th, a reading will be held at Lakewood’s Iacaboni Library, followed by another on the 15th at Signal Hill Library, and beginning the 22nd, the Los Alamitos- Rossmoor Library will begin holding visits.
For more information on BARK, up-coming visits or how to volunteer, go to www.readingdogs.org.