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Murray Journal

Therapy bunny listens to Parkside students read

Feb 08, 2018 12:41PM ● By Julie Slama

Gunkey, a therapy bunny, waits for a Parkside Elementary student to read a book. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

The dark, soft-coated bunny with long floppy ears sits quietly in the laps of school children each week, quietly listening as they read her stories about why Ann is so sad and Phoebe and her school spelling bee.

Each week, Gunkey, who volunteers along with Alexa Kruckenberg, listens as part of the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D) Program to assist struggling readers at Parkside Elementary.

“They can be stroking her or having a hand full of fur as it gives them something to hold on to, to support them while they’re reading,” Kruckenberg said. “At times, I’ll tell them that Gunkey doesn’t understand so I ask questions about what they’ve read so they can tell it in their own words.”

Through the READ program, Intermountain Therapy Assistant Director and READ Coordinator Karen Burns said it gives kids additional opportunities to read, but in a one-on-one setting where they can be with a trusting animal.

“As they’re petting the bunny on their lap or the dog alongside them, they’re not being judged,” she said. “It calms them and they’re able to practice reading without any pressure.”

While most are dogs, Burns said of the 400 therapy animals, there are five cats, two miniature horses and another rabbit besides Gunkey.

A local woman, Sandy Martin of Intermountain Therapy Animals, started the READ program in 1999 by gaining the support of a Salt Lake City librarian to host a six-week pilot program where kids could read to dogs. Now, 25 years later, the city library continues to host the high-demand program.

In March 2000, Intermountain Therapy Animals held a pilot study at Bennion Elementary School in Salt Lake City. The study found students that read to a dog showed marked improvement in their reading scores, Burns said.

Since then, the READ program has spread to all 50 states in addition to 21 countries.

All READ volunteers have nine hours of training as well as additional screening of their animal. They have at least four hours of literacy support education.

“If a child is having trouble sounding out a word, the volunteer may put the animal’s paw on the book or by the word and together, they’ll read it again. We can encourage the kids to read at home to their animals, if they have them, or to a stuffed animal to practice,” Burns said.

READ came to Parkside at the suggestion of social worker, Michelle Bouwman.

“I worked at Primary Children’s Hospital and we’d have the Intermountain Therapy READ animals come in to help the children and it would help them to relax,” she said. “By having a bunny sit on the lap, it lowers their blood pressure and especially helps with burned or trauma patients offering their soft fur to lessen their pain.”

At Parkside, she said the animals don’t correct the readers so it helps them build confidence.

“Kids come with their strengths and weaknesses in learning and reading and some can be challenging. The therapy animals give them a chance to build trust and know that learning can be fun and not see it as a struggle,” Bouwman said.

At Parkside, third-graders who are identified as needing a boost in their reading have the opportunity to read to Gunkey, with a parent permission slip. Burns said that the READ target age is for kindergartners through third-graders.

Principal Lindsey Romero said Parkside Elementary is the first school in Murray School District to welcome the READ program.

“This is a nationally recognized program, that yields high results for both students increasing their reading fluency and comprehension, but also helps with social and emotional problems,” she said.

Burns said that other kids in the area have the opportunity to read to therapy animals at Murray Library.