A guest blog by our Community Engagement Manager, Sarah Rosenberg
We were invited this past week to visit with a group of high school students at the Connections School of Atlanta. To many, this is considered a “special needs” school. To the Connections School, it represents an educational community that embraces neurodiversity and celebrates its students’ differences.
Some weeks ago, the students were given the opportunity to choose two local organizations to which they wanted to donate their attention and their involvement, and they chose LifeLine Animal Project specifically because of the challenging work we are doing in Atlanta’s county shelters. They really wanted to support our mission, and they wanted to learn more about the work we do that makes us special.
In anticipation of our visit, the students not only collected donations of cleaning supplies and dog shampoo for our shelters, but they undertook a special project to make rope leashes for our community’s needs. The project involved not only donating the leashes but also providing the students the opportunity to engage their math skills and their fine motor skills in measuring out the rope needed for each leash, threading the rope through the metal clasps, and tying the knots to finish the handles. After collecting and creating, the students donated all of these items to us to thank us for our visit.
When arrived on Friday morning for our visit, we brought two dogs to introduce to the kids—a five-year-old, mixed-breed stray dog adopted by her foster person from the DeKalb County Animal shelter and an eight-week-old, mixed-breed puppy who had been born at the DeKalb County shelter around New Year’s Day. The puppy was from a litter of 12 healthy puppies, but because she had suffered an injury that paralyzed her from the waist down, she had to be separated from her litter to get the special attention she needed. After just a couple of weeks in foster care, and with the regular care she got for her specific needs, she was able to recover the use of her hind legs and get on to the business of being a puppy. And because the students had expressed an interest in learning what we do at LifeLine that makes us unique in Atlanta, we thought we’d share both of these dogs’ stories with the students. Interestingly, what others see about us as unique, like working with both stray and injured dogs, turns out to be fairly commonplace for us in our daily work.
Once we got the dogs settled on the floor in the classroom, the students began to arrive, one by one. When the first boy entered the room, the puppy, naturally curious, started to vocalize, and her shrill puppy bark caused him some discomfort. The teacher noticed the boy’s discomfort and offered him some ear protection that allowed him to relax despite the occasional loud noise. He asked us pointed questions about our work, like whether we put healthy dogs to sleep, and as we were answering his questions, he became so excited about connecting in the moment that he started telling us about how his family fostered Great Pyrenees dogs and that he preferred fluffy dogs to the kinds of dogs we had brought them to visit with. But when he started to play with the older dog, even though she wasn’t fluffy, he didn’t take his eyes or hands off her for the next 45 minutes.
A girl entered the room who did not speak at all, and the teachers helped her communicate with the use of a plastic sheet with letters on it that she could point to and spell out words. Another boy entered the room concerned about why there were dogs there instead of his regular home economics class, clearly a disruption to his expectations for the morning. He didn’t want to sit and play with the dogs, and he twice tried to leave the room, but eventually he fixed on one of the dogs and enjoyed some precious moments of connection with her.
Sometimes the children would interact with each other or a teacher or a dog, and sometimes they would go off to a corner of the room and jump in place or look out the window. Most of the time, the children were focused on the dogs, sitting beside them and petting them, and the dogs received these gifts of connection with grace and gentleness. But when they weren’t, there was room for them to be who they were and interact in ways that they felt comfortable.
Many of the children shared stories of their own pets at home—a dog or a cat, what color, how large. One of the boys knew how tall everyone’s pets were and asked if we knew how tall the puppy was. One girl, who wore a black felt bowler hat and jangled a purple mardi-gras bead necklace, told us about her miniature donkey and her three dogs, one of whom she said was really crazy. Another girl, who had seen the first girl’s miniature donkey, said it was really cute.
I was absolutely awestruck by each of these kids, unique in their interests and abilities and ways of expression, most communicating more easily through body language than through words. Each met us with a different reaction upon entering the room, some more interested in the dogs than in us, some preferring to talk to the teachers or sit in chairs at the periphery of the room. And for each child, the teachers knew how to communicate, how to engage, how to meet that child at her or his moment and invite participation in a way that was natural.
The time flew by quickly, and our visit came to an end. We packed up the dogs, and the students collected the donations and escorted us down to the parking lot. As I marveled at the beautiful complexity of each of these kids and how each was not only acknowledged but celebrated in this environment, I appreciated how very special this school was. In another setting, these kids might have been marginalized or excluded, labeled for their nonconforming behavior or failure to communicate in mainstream ways and therefore dismissed out of hand.
Just then, a brilliant light bulb illuminated in my consciousness about the work we all do, many of us at the margins, to make sure that every being with a heartbeat is acknowledged, feels nurtured, and experiences love. Many of us do not have words to communicate our thoughts and feelings, and for those who do not, the deepest friendships are ones where words are not needed because love is shown and shared and felt.
Learning how others are distinctive and extraordinary requires our patience and understanding, and that often takes work, especially when it feels safer to dismiss those we don’t readily understand by using pat phrases like “aggressive breed” and “special needs.” But whether you’re a shelter dog or a neuro-atypical child or a regular old Joe, when someone shows you the kind of patience and understanding that allows your love to shine, you are home.