AIR’s In Their Shoes Exhibit Comes to Ocean County Community College
Debbie Linthorst’s introduction to Attitudes in Reverse was during an event at Timberlane Middle School, where AIR Co-Founder Tricia Baker gave a presentation with therapy dogs.
“I was really blown away by what AIR does and the support they provide to kids mentally,” said Linthorst, President of the Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education.
So when then-Superintendent Dr. Thomas Smith asked if she would like to join the program between the district and AIR to train therapy dogs, she was excited to give it a try, but she had just adopted her dog, Toby.
“We don’t know where he came from, but he seemed to have some training,” said Debbie of Toby, who she adopted in March 2020.
When the district’s second cohort started training with AIR last summer, Debbie decided to join the program.
“He is very laid back and snuggly. He exhibits empathy and concern when he senses that we, his human companions, are struggling with something. He could not be a sweeter dog. He loves to be with my kids,” said Debbie, who has an 8th grader, a high school sophomore and 2 in college. “He brought such love and comfort to our lives and I just thought he could bring that to others.”
Debbie says now is the perfect time for this special program.
“Given the times we’re living through with the pandemic the district will be focusing intently upon the mental health and well being aspect of our students and staff. These kids have been living in semi-isolation for several months,” she said. “Many of them are re-learning how to socialize with each other. Having the dogs there is another way for them to open up, speak to each other, speak to the adults in the room and share and learn what it’s like to be in a community again.”
Debbie, who has been on the school board for three years, isn’t sure whether Toby will make the school board offices his home base or visit other district schools as needed.
But she is certain of thing: Toby and the other therapy dogs are making a difference. She recalled an instance halfway throught training when she and Toby were practicing at Stonybrook.
“The kids’ eyes just lit up as Toby walked by,” recalled Debbie. “There was something so pure in that moment that reaffirmed my commitment. It reminded me why we were there – to bring the kids comfort and joy, to put them at ease, and to provide a means of addressing any anxiety that they may be experiencing within the school setting or beyond. It was so clearly evident at that moment that what we’re doing is an important thing.”