The practice of having children read to dogs to put them at ease has been around many years. But having kids read to cats? That is something new. In August, a photo of a young boy named Colby reading to a cat went viral on reddit, and “Book Buddies” garnered national attention.
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Program began last fall at Animal Rescue League of Berks County, Inc. Volunteer program coordinator Kristi Rodriguez noticed her son, Sean, struggled to read and felt too embarrassed to read in front of his family, let alone his class. Kristi knew she had to do something.
Around that time, Kristi read a story about children improving their reading skills by reading to dogs. But using dogs in the Animal Rescue League shelter was just not practical. “Our shelter isn’t set up that way. The dog area is noisy, the kennels are not large and temperaments are not always appropriate with some very high energy. We do, however, have four cat colonies where people are encouraged to hang out.”
The cats in the colonies are hand-selected, and out of six or so cats, about two are looking to engage at any one time. “The cats don’t judge,” says Kristi, “they just want love and attention. Our staff is so busy caring for the cats they don’t have time to snuggle with them. This is a chance for our junior volunteers to pick the colony they want to sit and read with. They open a book and already the cat’s interest is piqued and they’ll often climb onto the child’s lap.”
The program has blossomed from 25 to 30 kids a month to 60 children a month. Some come in several times a week and will wait for an hour or two if that’s what it takes to read to the cats. For children like Sean, the program has given them the ability to read with confidence. And with that, says Kristi, his self-esteem has improved as well. Sean isn’t alone in his outcome. Other parents – and teachers – have commented on the improved reading skills of their young students participating in “Book Buddies.”
Perhaps without even realizing it, these children make a big difference in the lives of these cats. They’re socializing them, thereby making them more adoptable. And, according to Kristi, they’re, “opening the community’s eyes to shelters as many still go to breeders. It’s absolutely helped the number of cat adoptions. Some children have even had the good fortune (and nice parents!) to adopt the cat they’ve been reading to! Even the number of dog-walking volunteers has grown.”
Although the children do not receive training on how to behave with the cats, they must be in grades 1-8 and accompanied by a family member 18 years or older. Kristi insists that, “the No.1 priority is the health of the cats.” This means families are coming in together – a parent, older sibling or grandparent – but it really becomes a family affair and it sounds like quality bonding time for all involved. The program even provides for special needs and home-schooled children to get in on the action.
If a child is unfamiliar with, scared of or just uncomfortable being surrounded by cats, folding chairs can be set-up outside those cats in cages. In this way, these children can still read to them with the assurance the cat is contained.
Word is that shelters from Los Angeles to New York have been discussing starting similar programs. Kristi says she’s received inquiries as far away as Africa! So far, she knows of two shelters taking the idea to their board, one in Sarasota, Fla., and another in Idaho.
News of the program has made it to all sorts of people who’ve taken it upon themselves to donate books. Authors from the Netherlands, book publishers and even Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt on Glee (and is a cat daddy to Brian the tabby), donated two cases of his own books!
Talk about positive reinforcement! I told Kristi she must be very proud of the success her program has found in such a short period of time. To that she replied, “It’s very rewarding and animal rescue can be a thankless job. Tens of thousands of children and animals are benefitting from this so it’s definitely a good feeling.”
Congratulations to Kristi for thinking outside the box to help her son, others like him and the animals in her community – particularly the cats who don’t often have a good rap when it comes to being loving, giving companions. Her program has already made waves and will hopefully continue to do so. Come on New York City, let’s get with the program!