Canine offers comfort, has powerful impact on emotional, educational well-being of Saint Philip students

Parents and faculty inspired by school’s new Cardinal C.A.R.E.S. program


GREENVILLE — Encouragement, physical and emotional healing, relaxation, joy and companionship: There are an endless list of benefits that three-year-old Georgi, a playful and loving Cavachon therapy pup, brings the students of Saint Philip School on a given day.
Saint Philip School has seen the value of working with a therapy dog to assist with social-emotional learning needs firsthand. In response to the many challenges today’s students face, the school instituted the Cardinal C.A.R.E.S. (Canine Assisted Resources for Emotional and Educational Skills Support) program at the beginning of the school year.
Cardinal C.A.R.E.S. is led and designed by Sheri Lough, a licensed occupational therapist trained in childhood development who specializes in behavioral health and program development. Georgi, a hypoallergenic, temperament tested, and people-loving dog, meets with 32 students weekly. Lough, who works onsite with Georgi, explained that visits range from 15 to 30 minutes depending on the need.
“We wanted to make sure everybody who requested access to Georgi received it,” said Lough. “We didn’t want anybody to be on a waiting list. Now, we support a variety of individuals, small groups, and whole class visits.”
“Sometimes, just depending upon the day, a visit could be in response to a teacher telling me, ‘I have a child in the class that’s really struggling, really emotional today. Can they pop down and see you for 5 minutes?’ and I say, ‘Send them down.’”
And it’s moments like these that Lough has seen a child’s mood or behavior change. The impact of visits with Georgi have been a powerful tool for students as they navigate challenging life circumstances, health, behavioral and academic challenges.
“It’s amazing. Georgi knows. A child will come, sit down and Georgi will jump right into their lap or put her head on their feet, and then she will just allow them to be with her. They pet her, their breathing slows down, they stop crying; They say I feel so much better.
“As they work through their feelings with Georgi, I say to the children, ‘Look, you did this. You worked through a hard emotion, a strong emotion.’ We celebrate their successes. It’s been a really nice success to see.”
Principal Keith Kline explained that the program is a proactive and evidence-based initiative for the long-term health, safety and success of the school community.
Last year, the Smithfield School Department informed Saint Philip School leadership of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA) which helps schools establish and expand safe, healthy, and supportive learning opportunities and environments through the BSCA Stronger Connections Grant program. The funds received from this grant helped to make Cardinal C.A.R.E.S. a possibility. Even though the grant funds have since been cut from $12,000 to $2,000, Kline explained that the school is dedicated to continuing this valuable program.
“The one thing in our budget that was guaranteed for next year was covering the cost of this program. Sheri and Georgi go above and beyond.”
Saint Philip School’s educational philosophy is to educate the whole child, in mind, body, and spirit, and part of their education is mental health, Kline explained.
“We’re seeing drastic change in mental health right now in the country with the rise of suicide, the rise of anxiety, the rise of our young people struggling with social media, phones, technology. We’ve got to do something to combat that, and this is one of our answers to that problem.
“I think Georgi is one of the brightest stars and biggest surprises of the year in the sense that we just didn’t know how it would go. And now every single person, every single teacher will say she has been one of the highlights of the year.”
Lough told Rhode Island Catholic of a selectively mute student who only felt comfortable speaking to the teacher. She struggled doing partner work and making those connections with classmates.
Lough said, “Let’s try Georgi.”
Over time, using special speak buttons to engage and interact with Georgi, the student’s comfort and confidence grew.
“She’ll talk to Georgi now and she talks to the entire class. I told her, ‘You’re Georgi’s ambassador. You have to teach your classmates about her.’ And she comes every week with a new child. Now she can move on to the next grade having relationships with her classmates.”
Genna Lepore, mother of kindergartener Camilo, shared that her son has thrived with the Cardinal C.A.R.E.S. program.
“I credit a lot of his maturity to it. He struggled at the beginning of the year with confidence in a new setting. But Georgi helped him build confidence, but it made school fun for him. We are beyond grateful for the program and hope that he can continue to be involved as it is a highlight of his entire school experience.”
Heather Lykas, mom of first grader Madalyn, explained that the C.A.R.E.S. program has been a great addition to the school’s offering.
“It’s helped Madalyn cope with transitions and changes that cause her to be anxious. It’s given her increased confidence and she always looks forward to her time with Georgi.”
Third grader Joseph Hayek’s mom Tina added that, “This program has helped my child in so many ways. From building confidence, helping with his stuttering and anxiety. He truly looks forward to this weekly. We are so thankful for this program.”
The Saint Philip School faculty recognizes that the way in which a dog symbolizes true and unconditional love helps students see the true and unconditional love, which comes from God. Incorporating Catholic theology into the student’s time with Georgi has been seamless.
“We talk about it with them. I think this program has been a success because it’s part of God’s will to have Georgi here this year. He opened up all the doors. Anytime you’re doing God’s will, you’re always going to be blessed,” Lough said.