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Ten-year-old Sean struggledwith reading aloud at school. But one Saturday in 2013, his mom, Kristi Rodriguez, brought him to the Animal Rescue League of Berks County (ARL) in Birdsboro, Pa., where she worked as a program coordinator. She handed him a book and told him to go read to the cats. Sean loved the experience so much that he asked to come back.
Realizing that other kids could also benefit from a furry, nonjudgmental audience, Rodriguez launched the shelter’s Book Buddies program in August 2013.
The program provides a community service by helping kids improve their reading skills, says Beth Ireland, ARL director of marketing. At the same time, the shelter’s cats benefit from the extra attention and socialization, and some even find homes with participants’ families.
The program is easy to run, Ireland says, with the caveat that it “works better when you have a colony-type setup, because anybody that knows cats knows that transporting them from one area to another area can make them edgy.”
ARL has four colony rooms, which can each accommodate up to three kids at a time. (Some kids prefer to place a chair in front of a cage and read because they feel bad for the cats who are individually housed.) While the program is targeted to kids in grades 1-8, Book Buddies is open to all ages. About 25 to 30 kids participate each month. Many come after school and on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, when the shelter is open until 8 p.m. Participation is highest in the summer, when school is out.
Parents sign a waiver for themselves and their kids, and sign in when they visit so the shelter can track participation. Although there’s usually a staff member in the cat colony rooms, parents must accompany their children. Parents and kids sanitize their hands before they go into a room and if they switch rooms, minimizing the spread of germs between areas. “We ask them to use common sense and keep the kids and the animals both safe,” says Ireland.
Kids can bring their own books or choose books at the shelter. Completing five books wins them a ticket, which they can redeem for a small prize, such as a key ring, or they can save tickets for higher-level prizes or a monthly raffle.
Along with improved reading skills, the program has helped some participants overcome their fear of animals. Rusty Boyles’ daughter Cheyenne was petrified of dogs after a friend’s dog knocked her down, and she was also a bit leery of cats. When they first visited ARL, Boyles planned to have her spend time with the shelter dogs to help her get over it. But he saw a posting about Book Buddies and decided to sign them up for that instead.
Cheyenne, who was 6 at the time, was tense initially and had a hard time focusing on the book. She kept looking over her shoulder. Her dad told her to put her head down and keep reading. The cats approached, nudged her hands and sat in the middle of her book. “All the cats, they were like looking at me in a funny way, and they looked interested too,” Cheyenne says.
Within a few weeks, Cheyenne was petting and playing with the cats. Her 9-year-old sister Isabelle also joined the program, and the two began saving their tickets to get bigger prizes, such as board games.
After three weeks of reading to the cats, Cheyenne decided she wanted to help the dogs, too. So after their reading sessions, she and her sister began walking dogs with their dad.
Her fears conquered, Cheyenne is now in the second grade and reading at a third-grade level. Her family has since fostered three ARL dogs. “It has turned out to be an amazing thing,” says Boyles.
The year after Book Buddies launched, a community member posted a note about the program on a social media website, along with a photo of a boy and an orange shelter cat cuddled together over a book. People were charmed, and the program was eventually featured on “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight With Diane Sawyer” and in Time magazine. Donors from around the world sent books, money and pet food.
“We set out for this just to be this tiny little program that gave back a little bit to the community that supports us,” Ireland says. “We’re so grateful for the attention that it has brought to us [and] to shelters everywhere.”
For more on this program, visit berksarl.org/programs/book-buddies.