Dreaming to Go "Fur"ther
For the last six years, Mary Alice McLoughlin, Manager, Volunteer Services, Community Hospital Long Beach, has worked to establish a network of passionate and dedicated volunteers. Mcloughlin recruits, interviews, and trains every volunteer that comes through Community Hospital Long Beach. The volunteers at Community Hospital Long Beach staff everything from the information desks to the gift shop, but McLoughlin had her heart set on a program that would take things even “fur”ther.
For as long as she can remember, McLoughlin had wanted to institute a pet therapy program at Community Hospital Long Beach, but “for some reason or another we were never able to get the program off the ground,” she said. It wasn’t until late last fall that hospital administration and her supervisor gave McLoughlin the opportunity to start the program.
Partnering Volunteers with BARK Dogs
After several hours of research McLoughlin came upon an organization named BARK (Beach Animals Reading with Kids). Based in Long Beach, BARK is an all-volunteer program that encourages children to increase their reading skills and self-confidence by reading aloud to certified therapy dogs. Though it is not their main focus, all BARK dogs are certified therapy dogs and receive training for hospital environments. These privately owned dogs undergo a rigorous certification process that involves countless hours of training and stringent testing requirements.
Once McLoughlin found an organization to work with, she had a general meeting to see if anyone was interested in the program. “We had about 15 people show up on the first night,” says McLoughlin “and once they arrived I had them go through the process of becoming official Community Hospital Long Beach volunteers. I also personally accompanied each new volunteer through the hospital and teach them the proper procedures for BARK dogs and their handlers.”
BARK dogs and their handlers have to go the whole nine yards when it comes to volunteering at Community Hospital Long Beach. Not only are volunteers given ID badges, the dogs are too. As of now the dogs are wearing their official BARK shirts for further security and identification, but there are plans to supply them and their handlers with matching shirts and bandanas just like the ones Community Hospital Long Beach volunteers wear.
During their visit, BARK dogs and their handlers visit patient waiting areas; as well as individual rooms to see not only patients, but staff as well. “I emphasize with the volunteers that they are here just as much for the staff as they are for the patients,” says McLoughlin. “I cannot even describe to you how many nurses, physicians and staff in general ask about visits. It’s a real stress reliever.”
BARK Dogs Lit Up Faces
When asked why she felt such a strong need for a program like this, McLoughlin shared a story that summed it all up.
“One day while walking through the hospital with a volunteer we were approached by an ICU nurse about a visit. She told us that there was a family she thought would benefit from the dog’s company. After asking the family if it was okay we went into the ICU and found out that this patient’s family had just made the decision to put her on hospice. Everyone was clustered around the bed crying, it had been a really hard day for them. When we brought the dog in, the whole mood changed. Everybody’s face lit up as we put the dog on the bed with the patient. The dog snuggled up to her, she was petting it, the family was petting it and during all this a family member comes up to me and says ‘We’ve been crying all day, but now these are tears of joy. This is just such a nice break for us.’ We weren’t there long, but it was long enough to give them a break from what was going on.”
The success of the program is dependent on volunteers and it is currently doing well. McLoughlin plans to expand the program to the MemorialCare Mental Health & Wellness Center in the future and is in the process of developing a strategy for this expansion.
"I get to see first-hand the power of these animals and what they can do for people. It truly is amazing."