Helping in the healing: Comfort Dogs assist Lincoln Trail students cope with loss of classmate

Mahomet is mourning the loss of Joel Roberts, an 11-year-old Lincoln Trail student who passed away during a flag football game at Barber Park on Saturday. Parents David Roberts and Carrie Livesay Roberts told WCIA on Tuesday their son had a rare heart defect that went undiscovered until his autopsy.

The pain of such a young life lost was felt by many in the community. Village board members held a moment of silence during their study session on Tuesday, and later that evening, the seventh-grade band dedicated its performance of "In This Quiet Place" by Robert Sheldon to the fifth-grader during the seventh- and eighth-grade band and chorus concert.

"The Mahomet-Seymour community is heartbroken with the loss of one of our fifth-grade students," Superintendent Lindsey Hall said.

Lincoln Trail Principal Jeff Starwalt said his students are "doing as well as could be expected after some heart-breaking news."

The elementary school invited Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dogs to assist students with their grief on Monday.

"We had several adult social workers from throughout the district, plus the handlers of the dogs to assist the kids in dealing with the loss," Starwalt added.

LCC's K-9 Comfort Dogs' handlers Diane Costello of Milford, Sharyn Klepp of Danville and Roxy Seifert of Auburn and golden retrievers Bethany, Dinah and Mahlah assisted students in grieving the loss of their classmate.

"The beautiful thing of the dogs is they show unconditional love, they're confidential, they don't take notes and they just love on people," said Tim Hetzner, president and CEO of Lutheran Church Charities.

"They'll (students) just lay on top of the dog," he added. "They (the dogs) are trained to be able to do that and take that. I refer to our dogs many times as a comfort rug with a heartbeat."

The concept for LCC's K-9 Comfort Dogs ministry began during Hurricane Katrina.

"We were asked by FEMA to do search and rescue of people and their pets," Hetzner said. "We did that, and we saw the power of the importance of an animal in somebody's life that's going through a disaster or a crisis."

The ministry officially began in August 2008 with four dogs. Today, more than 130 LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs serve 24 states, and Hetzner hopes to add six more states to his list by next year.

The Comfort Dogs and their handlers are deployed in churches, schools and universities following a crisis.

"We have teams up north in California assisting fire situations by serving first responders and displaced families," Hetzner said.

"We were also out for the suicide of a sixth-grader this week in Illinois," he added. "We have done crisis deployments with the dogs at Sandy Hook to just about every shooting and disaster there has been."

LCC's K-9 Comfort Dogs only go where they have an invitation to do so, and they do their best to have "boots and paws" on the ground within 24 hours of the request.

The golden retrievers go through 18 months of training, and many begin at 8 weeks old.

"We train them to work with all age groups and all types of people and noises — from sirens to gunshots."

The reaction from Lincoln Trail students was one of a "calming effect," according to Hetzner.

"Medically, it lowers your heart rate and it makes you calm down a little bit," he said. "As you calm down, you're more able to talk about what happened and what you're feeling. The important part of the feeling in any crisis or disaster is to talk about what you're feeling — your fears. We listen. We call it a ministry of presence."

For many students, the dogs are similar to a counselor. But if there's one thing Hetzner stressed, it's that his handlers are not counselors.

"We work with the counselors at the school as a way to help and support what they do and how they serve their students," he said.

"As they're able to talk to the dog, they're (students) able to talk to each other and they're (counselors) able to tell if there's somebody who's really struggling."

As for Lincoln Trail students, Starwalt said the Comfort Dogs were "very helpful."

“I could just sense that when the kids walked in in the morning, you could feel it, see it – the hurt,” he said. “But I could tell by the time they left yesterday, there was a whole different mood because they had an opportunity to talk about it, cry about it and share stories about their friend Joel and try to come to terms with what happened.”

The LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs and their handlers returned to Mahomet Thursday for Joel Roberts’ visitation, and Hetzner said they will “most likely” be at the Lincoln Trail student’s funeral today.

Hetzner said the Comfort Dogs are often invited back to the school a month or two after the crisis to help “continue that healing process.”

But for now, Starwalt and his students are thankful for the community support during such a difficult time.

“The schools are appreciative of the support that we received from the community,” Starwalt said. “I know the Roberts family feels the same way. Everybody is reaching out and bonding together to help us deal with these challenging days.”

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