by Dawn Will
Special to Sun Thisweek
Dakota County Tribune
A little boy pulls out a Jenga block from the tower and has an older girl beside him read the saying on it aloud.
“What makes you cry?” she says.
It’s a typical weekly children’s support group session at the 360 Communities Lewis House in Eagan. The boy doesn’t know how to answer so others help by suggesting situations.
“I’d probably cry if I was stung by a bee,” he admits.
A moment later, his hands are touching the blocks, eager to help others pull out their own phrases.
“Feelings” Jenga is played like regular Jenga, but with a twist – the blocks have handwritten statements such as “What makes you angry?,” “Talk about your family,” and “What makes you special?”
360 Communities Parent/Child Advocate Doreen L’Allier, the group facilitator, uses the modified game to get these school-aged children to talk about their feelings because they are from families where domestic violence is common. A typical child support group has 10 to 12 children. There are three children attending tonight.
“It’s a safe place for them to talk about what’s going on in their lives,” L’Allier said. “The benefits of this group is that it breaks the isolation that many kids feel because of that violence. The abusive person uses power and control to hurt them. This is very shameful and hurtful and our group works to break the silence of what has been happening.”
360 Communities operates two Lewis House sexual and domestic violence shelters, one in Eagan and another in Hastings. In 2013, more than 3,000 people benefited from 360 Communities’ violence prevention intervention programming, including nearly 500 children.
The game continues until the little boy takes off the entire top part of the Jenga tower and asks the older girl again to read the phrases. Each one answers them until the tower collapses. The timing is perfect because that’s when Molly arrives.
The kids rush to the door and bend down to pet her.
Molly, a 5-year-old chocolate cocker spaniel therapy dog, wags her stubby tail in greeting. She’s been here before and her nose immediately starts sniffing the floor, searching for the Cheerios she knows are hiding nearby. Soon, the adults hand the children small cups of Cheerios so they can feed her.
“Molly the Dental Dog” visits the child support group once a month.
She’s been a therapy dog for two years and lives with owner Mary Reck, her husband and other foster dogs on a hobby farm in Hampton.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” she said.
This is Reck’s first therapy dog. Molly spends most of her time at Applewood Family Dental in Woodbury, but ventures out to help others.
Reck learned about the children’s support group after visiting a similar group in St. Paul. They’ve been visiting for more than a year and are members of Pet Partners, a nonprofit that promotes “positive human-animal interaction to improve the physical, emotional and psychological lives” of the people they serve.
Studies have shown the benefits of pet therapy in treating depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.
According to Paws for People, another nonprofit that provides pet therapy visits to people in need, pet therapy can have a calming effect by causing the release of endorphins (oxytocin) in the body. They say that interaction with therapy animals can also decrease feelings of isolation and alienation, as well as provide comfort.
It’s not difficult to see the effect Molly has on the child support group kids.
“She’s cute,” says one of the girls. “She makes me feel very happy.”
These are common sentiments. The girl then tells Reck stories about dogs she’s known.
“Molly brings joy to the kids especially if they’re missing their own dog,” L’Allier said.
Reck tells the story a 4 or 5-year-old boy at a previous visit to Lewis House.
She was told ahead of time that he was afraid of dogs. She said he stayed in the corner away from Molly for a while. Eventually, he came up to Molly and even started feeding and petting her. At the end of the evening, the little boy gave Reck a big hug.
“Molly has that effect on kids,” Reck said.
For information on support groups for adults, school aged children and teens, contact 360 Communities Lewis House in Eagan at 651-452-7288 or in Hastings at 651-437-1291.
Interested in helping at 360 Communities? Visit the website www.360Communities.org or call 952-985-4017 for more information. People can like “Molly The Dental Dog” on Facebook and follow her latest adventures at www.facebook.com/pages/Molly-the-Dental-Dog/1433738006839683.
Dawn Will is a freelance writer covering the Twin Cities metro.