Adults with Developmental Disabilities Partake in Portland’s Reading-to-Cats Program

"They listen well. And they don’t judge you if you mess up on a word.” Both cats and people benefit from reading program.

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Adults with developmental disabilities are getting a lesson in literacy via a new Reading to Cats Program offered at Portland, Ore.’s Animal Rescue League, wherein cats get cuddles and storytime, and participants get a confidence boost!

The Program, a union between STRIVE (an organization providing recreational opportunities and services to young people with developmental disabilities) and the Animal Rescue League, was established in Spring 2015, seeing much success since its inception.

“STRIVE actually approached us with the idea of (them) volunteering here,” Jeana Roth, the Animal Refuge League’s community relations manager told the Portland Press Herald. “And we thought, ‘What if they work with our cats?’ It serves a need, and the cats benefit greatly from it.”

Participants, all members of STRIVE’s Next Step Program, which is focused on strengthening independent living skills, visit the Animal Rescue League every Wednesday afternoon. Many of STRIVE’s members feel shy and self-conscious to read in front of others, but bloom in front of the felines, letting go of their reserve, and feeling confident and non-judged when reading aloud to the cats.

“If there’s people around looking at me I get nervous…I get really shy and my cheeks all go red,” says Jacob Lessard, 24. “Cats are very quiet,” he says. “And I won’t be afraid reading to them.”

Reader Haley Pass, 23, agrees saying, “They listen well. And they don’t judge you if you mess up on a word.”
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The same type of flourishment can be seen from the cats. STRIVE’s Next Step Readers work in the multi-cat room at the Animal Rescue League, a location that houses felines with special needs ranging from behavior issues and old age to medical problems. Many have resided at the shelter for a longer period of time than the other Animal Rescue League animals, and can be described as shy and reclusive – two traits that fade away once the reading begins.

“When the students come in and they take a seat and they begin to read, it’s an engagement with the cats that they don’t typically have here,” Roth says. “We often see them climb out of their hiding holes and their cubbies.”

The change in the STRIVE readers is evident as well.

“I see an improvement in the way that they’re reading, almost like their confidence coming out,” says Kate Lord, team leader for STRIVE’s Next Step Program.

While the weekly afternoon reading sessions help to boost confidence in the readers, and assist in socializing the cats for future potential adoptions; one of the greatest aspects of the Program is the sense of achievement that participants feel at knowing that they are making a contribution to the district.
“It makes me feel good,” says Pass, “because then (the cats) get some skills for when people come to see them.”

“It gives (the STRIVE participants) an opportunity to give back to the community,” Betsy Morrison, STRIVE’s Program Director says. “Sometimes they feel like they take and take as recipients of services. For any of us it’s wonderful for our self-esteem to give back. And it’s no different for these young people.”

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