Cheyenne Boyle was terrified of animals. But when her dad registered Cheyenne and her sister Isabel for the Reading Buddies program at The Animal Rescue League of Berks County in Birdsboro, Penn. she made a miraculous turnaround.
Cheyenne and her sister Isabel go to the shelter twice a week to participate in the reading program, where kids in grades 1-8 can sign up to read to the shelter cats in one of the facility’s adoption rooms.
When Cheyenne and Isabel first started the program, Cheyenne struggled with staying calm in the presence of the cats. “Her dad Rusty would just say to her, ‘keep reading and focus on the book,’” says Beth Ireland, Director of Marketing & Communications for the shelter. “Before she knew it, she was comfortable with the cats. She didn’t even notice that she was getting used to them because she was reading.”
Now, a few short months later, Cheyenne is comfortable around the cats and is even a volunteer dog walker for the shelter (not to mention a much improved reader!)
The Reading Buddies program is the brainchild of ARL’s program director, Kristi Rodriquez, whose own son struggled with reading. Rodriguez knew pets were often helpful in providing assistance to young readers so she brought Sean, a fifth grader, in to the shelter to read to the cats. Six months later, Sean has shown remarkable improvement in his reading and now reads to the family’s dogs at home.
The children find the cats a non-threatening and supportive audience, while the cats enjoy human interaction and the rhythmic sound of the child’s voice soothing.
For every five books read, the kids can earn points for prizes. “But it’s such a secondary thing to the kids,” says Ireland. “The prize for them is the opportunity to hang out with the cats.”
Groups like local Brownie troops and more than 20 individual kids come in on a weekly basis, says Ireland. “We have some kids who started coming in August when we started and are still coming.”
“One little boy has autism and his mom home schools him,” Ireland shares. “His mom knows that interaction with animals is helpful and it has been. He’s blossomed while he’s here. It’s so sweet to watch.”
Ireland says the program has strengthened the bond the shelter has with the community, introduced new families to the shelter and even led to at least one cat adoption. “The community is so supportive of us and this is a great way to give back,” she says. “And it gives our cats socialization and play time that they need.”
Cheyenne and Isabel’s dad Rusty also uses the reading program as an opportunity to get the girls involved in the shelter and teach them to give back to the community. “They collect donations from their friends or neighbors and bring it in each time,” Ireland says. “They love it.”