“Meet Sasha. She is a toy-sized Australian Shepherd. They don’t normally come this size,” said her owner Jill Peters. “And that’s the big joke around here — about Tutors with Tails — Aussies don’t have tails,” she said.
Smiling is infectious around 5-and-a-half-year-old Sasha. She’s very friendly, but Peters said she especially likes kids.
“After they’re done reading, I let them give her a treat and have her do tricks. She loves doing tricks.”
Peters is in her second year as a volunteer math and reading mentor with Communities in Schools of Peninsula. She began with math at Purdy Elementary and reading at Minter Creek Elementary School last school year, while she was going through the process of getting Sasha certified as a therapy dog. By spring she added reading with the dog at Harbor Heights Elementary School to the delight of students there.
“They didn’t have a dog program in Vaughn and I’ve always told them I’m willing to go wherever I’m needed,” Peters said.
Christian Castillo is in the fourth grade. With Sasha by his side Christian quickly becomes oblivious to everything else in the library, petting the dog while comfortably reading his book aloud. At the end of each session, Sasha seems to know there is a treat coming.
“Sasha, you’re a real mind reader, aren’t you girl?”
“Sasha, you’re a real mind reader, aren’t you girl?” Christian said, giving her a tiny treat as expected.
The next round of reading went to Julia Davis, a fifth-grader. Her session is similar, focused on reading aloud while gently petting the dog.
To the casual observer, it may appear to be more like fun and games, but underneath it all, real emotional and structured reading goals are being met simultaneously.
CISP Volunteer Coordinator Cathy Rich said the interaction provides not only an academic boost to students, but also helps kids who need social and emotional support, teaching equally important lessons such as kindness and compassion.
Rich said the Tutors with Tails Reading Program is currently offered at Vaughn, Evergreen, Minter Creek and Harbor Heights Elementary Schools. Launched in partnership with Peninsula School District, the pilot program provides students who may be struggling with reading, the opportunity to read with certified therapy dogs, boosting literacy, confidence and social skills.
While Sasha and student reading happens in one small corner of the library, elsewhere the long running human mentoring that goes on in this after-school program administered through CISP has a playful aspect as well.
At another table in the library sits veteran volunteer mentor Dick Vanberg, teaching a young boy to play the classic card game 21. The two talk as he shuffles the cards for another round, “It’s a fun way to learn math,” he said.
Volunteer mentors at Vaughn, like Vanberg, are in for the long game. Vanberg was recruited by Congressman Derek Kilmer for the program 15 or more years ago, he said, long enough to have forgotten exactly. Other mentors at Vaughn have racked up over a decade at the school.
The consistency and dedication of CISP mentors is appreciated by Patti Wilson, the librarian at Vaughn Elementary since 2015 and the manager of the after-school volunteer reading program and staff for CISP. Wilson said she loves her job and is proud of the long-running program at Vaughn, the school where the after-school program was born.
“Our volunteer mentors make a big difference here and that’s what it’s all about,” Wilson said.
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