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February's Community Role Model

Every month we work to bring in someone from the community with a passion for working with youth and a track record of having made a difference in the community.

This month retired Pastor Dennis Morner visited with our students bringing his pet-therapy-dog, Max along with Melissa Kitko and her service dog, Alix. Pastor Morner recently retired from Anchor Lutheran Church where he and his dogs regularly welcomed Anchor Lutheran School students and their families on school days as part of his pastoral duties. His certified pet therapy dogs were always so well behaved, helped facilitate many conversations, and brought a special start to the day when they were present. Together they helped set the tone for the day ahead for so many youth. It was with this observation in mind that prompted us to invite Pastor Morner and Max to join us for the community role model program and they very graciously agreed.

Melissa Kitko (left) & Dennis Morner with service dogs Alix & Max.
As Laurie Linsley, one of our resident experts on equine therapy (and author of previous blogs on the topic) shared her experience: “As I walked into the gymnasium, the dogs could not be seen at first glance. The students were seated in chairs, grouped by units with staff dispersed appropriately. The silence was comfortable but almost eerie. The calming affect that the dogs had on the students was stunning. As I looked into the crowd I could see the dogs lying down, sprawled out but gently groomed by the students. The power of a dog to not only silence a crowd of teens, but to almost hypnotize them was impressive. From the memories of past pets the students had, the touch of soft fur, the unconditional connection the dogs had as they approached each student on their own free will, the self-control the students needed to have to invite the dogs over to the conversations afterwards were all therapeutic without even trying to be. Our students have been removed from home for various reasons and have limited to no physical contact with others so touching the animal provides the necessary human need for love, connection and touch. Some of our students struggle with impulse and self control so being in the presence of an animal helps regulate and manage self control. There are so many therapeutic benefits to animals, the list goes on and on.”
Also very telling were the comments from students directly in which they described the power of meeting Pasor Morner and Max in their own words:
• “It was really helpful to see the dogs. They can sense what you’re feeling and sense what you need so I liked that.”
• “It made me happier to see the dogs because it reminded me of home and my animals at home.”
• “I really liked petting the dogs, they were really cool and happy.”
• “It was a nice coping skill to pet the dogs, and I felt more relaxed after leaving.”

We are so fortunate to have caring community-minded individuals like Pastor Morner who are willing to volunteer their time meeting with our students (and staff), to shine a guiding light, to make a positive difference in others’ lives, to give back to their community, and to make the world just that bit more special. We welcome and appreciate suggestions and volunteers for the Community Role Model Program (agency contacts are Coach Thomas Gardiner or Brittney Hogan either of whom can be reached via our main office location at 907-346-2101)

*For more information on how animals can help in therapy please visit