Deb Hendricks is the Eligibility, Recruitment, Selection, Enrollment, and Attendance (ERSEA) Coordinator for Marion Community Schools Head Start in her hometown of Marion, Indiana. In 2020, Deb and her team took a creative approach to help families and staff cope with the trauma created by the pandemic and ensuing economic fallout: a therapy dog.

During the spring of 2020, Deb and her team were brainstorming ways they could support the mental health of children and staff and raised the idea of a therapy dog for their program. There were, of course, risks, questions of funding, and uncertainty around the logistics. But, after careful consideration, Deb was one of the deciding voices to say they just needed to go for it, knowing that so much of preschool is social-emotional learning and so many were dealing with the isolating effects of the pandemic. Deb knew the therapy dog would benefit the entire school community.

The dog, Westin, has been an amazing addition to the program. He helps children regulate their emotions, cope with separation anxiety from their parents, practice patience, and so much more. Just as important, and somewhat unexpectedly, he has also become a reliable friend to the teaching staff, providing comfort in a stressful year.

In her own words:

“It’s easy to talk about the challenges and stresses and feel overwhelmed and inadequate. But to take steps to be innovative and think of new ways to serve children and families takes a lot of effort and courage, especially when it’s easy to do things the way we have always done them. We have a strong, quality program that has been in our community since 1965. We are well-respected and could be satisfied with the status quo. However, we know that there are always ways to make our program better and more effective, and we aren’t going to let COVID-19 be an excuse to be less effective or present in our community and in our services to our students and families.”

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come.

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