Dogs provide comfort to students after tragedy


Bethany, Barnabas and Naomi did exactly what they were trained to do.

After being led into the Brownstown Central High School library, they laid down, sat or stretched out on the floor and waited for students to gather around.

The three golden retrievers sensed when the students cried and either put a paw on them or gently licked their hand.

The dogs also remained calm as students ran their hands through their soft fur.

They were there to provide comfort in a difficult time.

Late Saturday night, freshmen Nevaeh Law and Brittany Watson died as they helped push a Chevrolet Suburban along State Road 258 in Cortland after it broke down. The driver of a Chevrolet Traverse ran into the rear of the Suburban.

Seymour High School junior Martin Martinez and freshman Jenna Helton also died. Five other local students — Starlit Watson, Victoria Burchard, Victoria Valdivia, Allerika Henline and Courtney Arthur — were injured.

They all had attended Valdivia’s birthday party nearby.

The three dogs from Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry were at the school to help students deal with the deaths of their classmates.

“The dogs were here for us like Nevaeh was always here for us,” Brownstown freshman Chloe Covert said.

“It just made me feel happier. Nevaeh was always really happy, and she would want us to be really happy,” freshman Jenna Lowery said of spending time with Bethany.

“Nevaeh was really comforting to everyone,” freshman Kaitlyn McCormick said. “Just for everyone to be together reminds me of how Nevaeh was comforting to us.”

Destiny Root said seven freshmen girls are in a group called The Sisterhood that was formed last year when they were eighth-graders. Nevaeh was in that group.

“We all started hanging out every day at the lunch table, and it was like, ‘You know what? Let’s be The Sisterhood,'” Root said.

“We are all just best friends, always there for each other,” she said. “We talk to each other about everything. There aren’t secrets. It is easy to talk because you always know that someone is going to be there for you to talk to.”

Spending time with the dogs and other students was comforting to everyone, Root said.

“Having a group and having animals just to keep you calm and know that you’re not alone is always good,” she said.

Junior Michael Pouw said he didn’t know Law or Watson, but seeing the emotions of people who knew them affected him.

“It just makes me want to cry,” he said. “I would show these people a lot of support even if you don’t know them. Just know that they are still kids and they should have a lot of support because it’s sad.”

Jami Stuckwisch, a guidance counselor at the school, had heard the comfort dog ministry assisted students at Jennings County High School last school year following the deaths of two students.

After talking to Principal Joe Sheffer about it, they contacted the ministry about coming to the school Monday.

Bethany is from Trinity Lutheran Church in Danville, Illinois, Naomi is from Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Indianapolis and Barnabas is from Trinity Lutheran Church in Hobart.

Their handlers Monday were Mike Klepp and Sue Barr with Bethany, Sherry Brown and Bob Hoch with Naomi and Dan Fulkerson with Barnabas.

Klepp said Lutheran Church Charities started in the 1940s as a disaster relief organization, and the comfort dog ministry was added about 10 years ago.

“They found that dogs were very comforting to people who had experienced their home being flooded out or being blown away in a tornado,” he said. “They decided that this is a perfect opportunity to start a ministry to help people that are in need.”

All of the dogs are trained for 2,000 hours. Upon completion, each of them has a Bible verse as part of their name on their American Kennel Club registration form. They also have their own Facebook page.

The dogs interact with people at churches, schools, nursing homes, hospitals and events and in disaster response situations.

“Wherever we go, she makes an impact,” Klepp said of Bethany. “Sometimes, it’s small. Sometimes, it’s very large. We’ve been to school shootings where there’s instant trauma. That’s as difficult as this. Each difficult situation like this is terrible, of course, in its own right, but we just do whatever we can.”

The ministry consists of nearly 130 golden retrievers in 23 states, and they are owned by a Lutheran church or school, Klepp said.

“There are other dogs in training, as well, because churches are lined up waiting to get one of their own because it’s such a wonderful thing and a wonderful ministry,” he said.

Klepp said it was great to see Bethany helping the Brownstown students.

“There was one girl in a purple sweat jacket that was very, very upset,” he said. “She was sobbing and crying, and the dogs pick up on that. Bethany was reaching out to her and lying on her lap almost to help her, to comfort her. It’s a comfort dog ministry. That’s what they do.”

Klepp said it’s something they see every day.

“We’re supposed to help our neighbors,” he said. “The Bible says that we’re supposed to reach out to people and tell them about the Gospel and help them whenever we can. This is how we’re helping today. It’s just what we’re going to do.”

Barr said it makes them emotional, too.

“What we hope is for (Bethany) to bring comfort to the students,” Barr said. “This is a very traumatic experience for them, and it’s probably their first time maybe that they’ve experienced a loss of a peer.”

Counselors from the Brownstown schools and two therapists and some family support specialists from Centerstone also were there for Brownstown students Monday. Administrators and counselors from all three schools met with the Centerstone crisis team early Monday morning, and then the school counselors met with the teachers.

At 8:15 a.m., Sheffer shared some thoughts over the intercom during morning announcements.

“This is a difficult time for everyone,” Sheffer said. “Please lean on each other for support.”

Pictures and poster boards were in the cafeteria for people to sign, and those will be given to the family members. Also, Fellowship of Christian Athletes plans to lead prayer vigil at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday at the school’s flagpole.

Sheffer’s announcement ended by asking everyone to join him for a 30-second moment of silence to remember the students and families affected.

Seymour High School Principal Greg Prange also shared thoughts during his morning announcements.

“There are no words that I can come up with that can even begin to express to you how sorry and how heartbroken all of us are,” he said. “We can ask the question why, but no one knows the answer. When you turn on the evening news, you see tragedies that take place all over the world, but when it strikes those you know and those you love, you begin to see tragedies in a different, more personal light.”

He said he is praying for comfort and peace as everyone tries to cope through the grieving process together.

“I saw many of you (Sunday) night gather here at school for the candlelight vigil and balloon launch,” Prange said. “That was a very important display of love and support for not only our school community, but for our neighbors in Brownstown, as well.

“Tears will be shed, shoulders will need to be leaned on and hugs of reassurance will be plentiful,” he said. “I would encourage you to cherish the memories that you have of our fallen friends, for those memories will never go away. Continue to strengthen and support each other in this time of need.”

He also said everyone should set aside any silly squabble or disagreement they may have with others.

“Life is precious. Life is short,” he said. “Take care of yourself, and take care of those friends and family in your life.”

He also ended his announcements with a moment of silence, prayer and reflection in memory of the four teenagers who died.

Counselors, central office personnel, youth ministers and administrators were available Monday for students.

At 7:45 a.m. Wednesday, Seymour’s FCA chapter invites people to meet at the flagpole for a prayer vigil.

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