MOUNT VERNON — A group of Mount Vernon Middle School students volunteered two hours after school to hand-make cushions for the Working Dog Awareness Group (WAGS) program. The resulting 25 cushions will be used every Saturday when MVMS students go to the Knox County Animal Shelter to read to the dogs awaiting adoption.
Founded by sixth-grade English teacher Trudy Debolt, the WAGS program is in its fifth year of operation. Debolt was inspired by the children’s book “Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam” and founded WAGS in honor of the service dogs in the U.S. military.
The program started with 11 students. Over the years, WAGS grew to where there are currently 73 students who take turns to read to the dogs every week.
When reading to the dogs, the students used to sit on the concrete floor in front of the kennel, on a towel or a flat pillowcase.
Mary and Phil Samuell, a pair of volunteers who lead various afterschool activities at MVMS, decided to teach the students how to make customized cushions to sit on.
The Knox County Animal Shelter donated the materials, including soft fabric with various designs featuring dogs and several boxes of polyester fiber filling.
The assembling process was entirely sewing-free. The students would cut out tassels along the sides of the fabric and used the tassels to tie two fabrics together, filling the middle with polyester fiber to create a cushion.
A total of 20 students volunteered last week to create these colorful cushions from 2:30- 4 p.m. after school, according to Debolt.
“I was surprised how many did show up, knowing they would stay until 4.” said Debolt, “They were very motivated.”
Not all students who worked on the pillows were in the WAGS program themselves. Some of them were not able to go to the dog shelter on weekends, but wanted to participate by making something for the group.
“It showed a lot of empathy,” Debolt said, “That kids were able to think beyond themselves, and think ‘What can I do to be a part of this even though I can’t any other time?’”
Another pleasant surprise was when boys participated in the cushion making workshop. Debolt said there were usually fewer boys in the program because their sports activities often conflicted with WAGS’ schedule.
“It was mostly girls but there were three boys that stayed, and they probably secretly loved that choice,” Debolt said, smiling, “Because the girls really wanted to help them.”
The cushions will help the kids sit still and more comfortably when reading to the dogs, Debolt said. The students tried out the cushions for the first time this past Saturday.
Another benefit is that the cushions make the setup process faster and easier for the coordinators. Debolt said she had to go in early to set up the towels and pillowcases, but the pillows are easier to set out.
In addition to the Samuells, another MVMS teacher, Teresa O’Hara, also contributes to the program by donating dog kibbles. O’Hara joined WAGS last year; she now shares on-site supervision duty with Debolt.
Although they cannot share the cushions with the animals due to potential risks of the dogs swallowing or choking on the fabric and filling, the students can offer tasty kibbles for the canine audience to snack on when listening to the stories.
Several students found making the cushions relaxing and remarked that it was “almost like therapy,” said Debolt.
Many aspects of the WAGS program appear to have a therapeutic effect. Debolt shared that the first time WAGS went to the shelter, the warden and staff were amazed at how all the dogs had stopped barking.
The program also helps bring attention to the dogs in need of adoption. Debolt regularly posts photos of the kids reading to the dogs on WAGS’ Facebook page. Prospective adopters are encouraged by seeing the dogs’ gentle and friendly interaction with the children, according to Debolt.
WAGS is so impactful that they have a unique situation this year, where only six adoptable dogs are currently left in the shelter. Debolt said she ended up having to team up the kids, so each dog has two or three children reading to them.
This is the first time WAGS has so few dogs to read to, according to Debolt — a good problem to have for Knox County Animal Shelter and WAGS.
It is a bittersweet moment to see a dog being adopted because WAGS students do not always get a chance to say good-bye. Over the five years, only a couple of students ended up adopting the dogs themselves, but Debolt said the students are dedicated to, and take ownership of, the dogs they serve.
“The students going to read to the dogs, they know the purpose is not to adopt,” Debolt said. “The purpose is to make sure the dogs’ hope stays alive… For the dogs to know that even though they were abandoned, they are loved.”
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