Heeling Friends animal therapy program celebrates 20 years serving Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

Heeling Friends animal therapy program celebrates 20 years serving Steamboat

Dash Levy, of Florida, reads to Barbara Clark and her dog, Julia, inside the Bud Werner Memorial Library a few years ago as part of Heeling Friend's R.E.A.D program. That program ended this year, but the group is hoping to find more volunteer teams to get it back up and running as soon as possible.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Barbara Clark still remembers the days she took her dogs or cat into the hospital rooms at the UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs and was able to change somebody’s day for the better.

There was the time when she visited a man in the cancer center, and she watched as he petted the dog’s fur and started crying.

"That's been some of my most rewarding experiences when I see that happen," Clark said. “He started petting my dog, and she is looking back at him, and then he started crying. It was a catharsis to him, and yes, there were a few sad moments in there as he worked through his emotions, but we were smiling and laughing at the end. He connected with that dog, and then connected me with me a little bit, and that made things better."

But the little rewards, the ones you don't necessarily see, also touched Clark.

"When I had my therapy cat, I was in the room and had a nice visit with a man who was being cared for," Clark said.

As she was leaving at the end of the visit, Clark said the man's  daughter stopped her just outside the room to thank her.

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"She said, ‘You know that is the first time my dad has smiled in three days,’" Clark said. "It makes you realize that you are helping that person deal with whatever they are going through at that moment. Those are the kinds of rewards that keep me coming back."

Heeling Friends has been making visits like that in Steamboat Springs for 20 years. The program was started in 1998 by Valerie Appel, a retired emergency room nurse, with just three teams. 

"I think she just saw a need, a spot, a hole. She saw a  space for a pet therapy program in Steamboat,” said Lynette Weaver, who is still involved with the program today and served as its director from 2000-2013. “She took it upon herself to research, find out what would be involved, meet with the officials of the hospital and then drew up a business plan. It was literally a year in the making."

Weaver said hospital officials, including Margaret Sabin, the former CEO of Routt Memorial Hospital, Karl Gills, longtime chief operating officer at Yampa Valley Medical Center and his successor Frank May, have all been supportive of the program over the years.

She said Heeling Friends has always followed strict standards set forth by the hospital and also those set forth by First Delta Society Pet Partners program and more recently, the Intermountain Therapy Animals. The programs set the standards that the local program operates under.

Clark has been with the program since 2004 and has just recently stepped into the directors position. The all-volunteer organization provides animal-assisted therapy services for  UCHealth Yampa Valley Medial Center as well as the extended care center, residential centers for people with disabilities or developmental delays and treatment centers like the Foundry.

"We have gone from the concept of its good to have therapy animals at the hospital to how can we be the best animal therapy program for our community," Clark said. "We are constantly striving to becoming the most professional organization that we can be."

But at its heart, Heeling Friends is really about helping out the community where ever and whenever possible.

The group’s numbers topped out in 2012 when it recorded over 1,000 hours visited at the hospital. In 2017, the group visited the hospital 214 days for a total of 256 hours.

Because of the drop in volunteer hours, Heeling Friends, which currently has 29 teams, is hoping to increase those numbers with a recruiting drive. While not every animal has what it takes to be a service dog or cat, Clark is confident that the group can find a lot more animals in Steamboat that want to connect with people.

"This whole year is the year of the dog and our 20th anniversary," Clark said. "Our goal is to bring awareness of what therapy animal teams do and what more we need. We want to have a team in the hospital every day and a full program at the elementary school, but we need more teams to get there."

From 2013 to 2014, Clark estimates that the Heeling Friends program peaked at nearly 45 teams. The program is still very active at the hospital, but the drop has forced the organization to drop its R.E.A.D program where a team — dog and handler — were teamed up with a child as part of a reading program at the elementary schools and library in Steamboat Springs.

Georgiana Stetter, who handles administrative work for Heeling Friends, said people should not expect a big party for the organization's anniversary. 

"We want to make it more of a celebration of awareness," Stetter said. "We want to let the public know in Routt County that we have been here for 20 years. These are the numbers, this is what we do now and this is what we want to do in the future."

Anyone who is interested is becoming part of Heeling Friends is asked to call 970-367-7410 or email info@heelingfriends.org.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.