Over eight years ago, Pam Gaber left a lucrative yet unfulfilling business career. As a volunteer at the Phoenix Crisis Nursery, a sanctuary for maltreated children, Gaber asked director Natalie Miles if she could bring Gabriel, her big bouncy Weimeraner, to the annual holiday party. That decision forever changed the lives of Arizona’s bruised and battered children.
With a bright red and green scarf draped around his neck, Gabriel wagged his short curly tail. One by one shy and reserved children inched forward, sucking thumbs or holding onto raggedy toys, to meet the four-footed visitor. The children soon smiled or giggled. Some hugged Gabriel while others stroked his smooth gray fur. A few patted him with such care their actions suggested he was made of fine china and might shatter.
Abused children such as these were rarely cuddled or nurtured. Neither was the family pet. Dogs were probably chained in the yard and cats left outside. Researchers such as Dr. Randall Lockwood of the ASPCA suggest there is an inextricable link between child abuse and animal abuse.
Gabriel lavished the children with doggie kisses. He loved them regardless of their tattered and worn clothes or the scuff marks on their shoes. After the children spent more time around the gentle dog, they swarmed around him like a team celebrating a win. They couldn’t seem to get enough.
“On that first visit, a few children had been recently removed from their homes. They were withdrawn, not knowing how to fit in,” says Thompson. Such behavior is typical among maltreated children. The sudden departure, even from abusive parents, leaves them confused and bewildered. According to Thompson, the children came alive around Gabriel. “For a change their eyes sparkled. All they wanted was to be around the dog. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Thompson asked Gaber to bring her dog back. That was the end of 1999 and Gaber’s life has never been the same. Neither has her dog Gabriel, the canine caretaker.
Word quickly spread about Gabriel’s magic. Domestic violence shelters, after school programs, and group homes wanted Gabe to visit. Soon, the dog had such a busy schedule Gaber couldn’t keep up with her dog’s growing popularity. “He needed his own social secretary,” says Gaber. “I thought of getting him a Palm Pilot to track his schedule and make appointments.” Realizing she was onto something special, Gaber tapped her friends and neighbors with friendly dogs to keep up with demand. When the phone didn’t stop ringing, Gaber and husband Mike had to make a decision. “It was time to start a formal group,” Gaber says. “Except we didn’t know what we were doing.”
To begin, they contacted the Delta Society, a non-profit group that works to improve human health through service and therapy animals. Gabriel breezed through their rigorous behavior test and became a card carrying member of the Delta Society, a standard for therapy work. Their den served as the office. Details like bank accounts, buying office supplies and organizing a board of directors followed. A name quickly became obvious. If it wasn’t for their dog, there would be no group. Gabriel’s Angels was officially born early in 2000. Tax exempt status was granted after completing a lengthy paperwork process.
An article in a local newspaper spurred interest. By the end of 2000, there were 37 certified therapy teams serving about 250 children. Gabriel’s Angels now has 90 teams and visits children in 80 facilities in places like domestic violence shelters, after school programs, group homes, crisis nurseries serving 10,000 children.
Child abuse rips apart families and destroys young lives every day. Statistics indicate that children younger than three years old are the most frequent victims of abuse. At least fifty children died of maltreatment in Arizona on 2005. In March 2007 almost 10,000 children were in foster care in Arizona. Abused children have a greater chance to become abusers as adults.
Gabriel’s Angels’ mission is to deliver healing pet therapy to abused, neglected and at-risk children, nurturing their ability to love and trust, thereby freeing them from the cycle of violence. This is done through weekly visits by therapy teams.
Volunteer Diane McGuire, on board since 2005, visits several facilities. In addition to her dog Scotch, she holds the distinction of having Kenny, Gabriel’s Angels’ only therapy cat. “Scotch is great with kids of any age. He’s patient and very understanding,” McGuire says. “Kenny is good with the teens at the domestic violence shelter we visit. The kids are amazed at how accepting he is and how he gets along so well with Scotch.” Kenny is an endless source of surprise for the children. Melissa Jensen visits a crisis nursery with her dog Soo, an Akita. During the first visit, Jensen says the children were stumped by Soo’s hefty size but after playing with the gentle giant they realized Soo was sweet and loving.
“On my way out one day, I noticed a little boy in the lobby. The social worker was filling out intake papers. He was filthy, covered from head to toe in dirt,” Jensen says. “His little brother had a raw, open wound on his calf.”
Blinking back tears, Jensen approached the brothers, huddled next to each other for comfort. Neither said a word but they stared at Soo. One boy reached out and touched Soo’s nose. “Soo licked his hand,” Jansen says. “Then, the boy leaned into Soo’s face.” They touched noses for a brief moment. The boy then turned away and Jensen left with Soo. Jansen felt Soo told the boy in her own special way that he was now safe at the Crisis Nursery. Gabriel’s Angels is always in the market for therapy teams. But there are strict guidelines in place. All dogs and cats must be registered with the Delta Society to be part of Gabriel’s Angels and pass their behavior test every two years. Naturally, pets must be healthy, up to date on vaccinations and licensed. Human volunteers must pass a background check and submit fingerprints. Anyone with a criminal background is banned.
Gaber and her dog have been tireless and shrewd fundraisers, working pro bono (although Gabriel has been known to gobble up a few steaks at fundraising luncheons). All the hard work finally paid off. Now Gabriel’s Angels has four paid staff members, two of whom are part-time. They rent an office in Mesa. Although Gaber has retreated from the spotlight, her passion for abused children is unstoppable. She rallies new volunteers, speaks to potential donors, and focuses on the sustainability of Gabriel’s Angels.
Gabriel’s Angels has racked up a string of awards, such the New Leaf Volunteer Group of the Year in 2002 and the Ray Rafford Community Award in 2007. Gabriel was inducted into the Arizona Animal Hall of Fame in 2005 and won Hero Dog of the year in 2004. Gaber snagged the Impact for Enterprising Women Award in 2003 and was named a Woman of Distinction by the Mesa Soroptimists in 2004. Both Gaber and her dog grabbed the ASU Community Fellows Program Award in 2005. Media coverage extends beyond Phoenix. Gaber was recently profiled in Money Magazine.
Gabriel’s Angels constantly tries to improve therapy visits. Penny’s Pals is part of their Animals and Children Together Learning Project (ACT). ACT includes three age appropriate activities for kids that Gabriel’s Angels designed with input from local child welfare experts. Given to each volunteer, kits have a series of activities to help shape core behaviors so children don’t repeat the cycle of violence.
“Brushing a dog’s teeth and listening to the dog’s heart with a stethoscope, brings children into close contact with the animal,” says Gaber. “That’s so they see the dog as a sentient creature with feelings like they have.”
So far, it’s been a remarkable success. Children jockey for space to be first for the stethoscope. “They’re fascinated to by the sound of the dog’s heart,” Gaber says. “They like grooming the dogs, too. And I can’t forget about Kenny, our one therapy cat. Children like to groom him as well.”
But does pet therapy work among this population? According to an outside review done by a private researcher, LeCroy and Milligan Associates in 2006, “Changes in the children’s skills and behaviors were seen in respect, awareness, self-regulation and tolerance. The surveys showed the largest effects in areas of trust and attachment, affiliation and confidence.”