Some people may wish for a career that involves rubbing elbows with celebrities, but Laura Carlson of East Greenwich gave that up for a different calling. On Friday, she will be awarded for her work.
Carlson is founder and director of Tails To Teach, a nonprofit started in 2011, that sends teams of registered therapy dogs and their owners into schools to teach kindness, compassion and empathy. The Animal Rescue League of Southern Rhode Island will hand Carlson a Golden Paw Award for her contribution to animal welfare at its third annual Diamond in the Ruff fundraiser Friday night.
Carlson first came up with the idea while staying in a hotel in Savannah, Georgia, and working on the set of a movie. Carlson was an animal safety representative for the American Humane Association, watching over the well-being of animal actors. She had a successful career, but little passion for what she was doing.
“It was not what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.
Being moved to tears after reading articles about the positive changes therapy dogs were making with prison inmates, Carlson envisioned a program that would reach at-risk youth before they entered the justice system.
“Why couldn’t we reach the inmates when they were kids, before they went into prisons?” she said, describing her thoughts. “If they can make the incredible connections when they are adults, why can’t we try to harness that and drive it when they are children?“
Carlson worked three jobs to get Tails To Teach off the ground and has since received immense support from grants provided by the Rhode Island Foundation and Champlin Foundations, she said.
“After all of the hard work,” she said, “It’s finally coming to fruition.”
She decided to work with children in lower grades, and targeted under-served communities in Providence. It now serves 11 elementary schools, bringing rescued pets, trained as therapy dogs, into classrooms to help children model positive behavior with animals and each other, fostering an environment where children can find nonviolent solutions to problems such as bullying. The four-week program visits classrooms for 45- to 60- minute sessions.
“The lessons we teach are really about character development more than anything else,” Carlson said. “The dogs act as a bridge to the kids, the stories of the dogs and their struggles and triumphs – the kids can really relate to them.”
The press release announcing the award touted Carlson’s work bringing her Tails To Teach dogs to Newtown, Connecticut, to comfort those grieving over the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. When speaking to Carlson this week, she said that even though the Newtown trip was well publicized, every day she sees the comfort and confidence the dogs bring to the classrooms and to the kids.
“We did it in a very public way when we went to Newtown, that was an obvious need in a horrible situation,” she said. “But we do that to a small degree every day we are in school. It’s hard for me to find one of my kids in a classroom that hasn’t experienced or witnessed some sort of violence. It is not uncommon to hear gunshots in their neighborhood.”
Carlson said there’s usually one or two kids in the class who have had recent difficult experiences, and those are the kids the dogs go to immediately, ending up in their laps.
“I usually find out after the fact that that kid has recently experienced some sort of drama,” she said. “It’s kind of amazing.”
“It is really important to me to stay in under-served communities,” Carlson said. “I forget that it’s only 12 miles from where I live, that that’s happening every day. We hear about it over and over again. We kind of tune it out because ‘I don’t live in that neighborhood.’ But those are our neighbors. These kids grew up two streets away from where I grew up in Providence. I can’t just turn my back on them because I live in a safer neighborhood now. That’s just not cool.”
She said students trust her and will talk about the intimate moments in their lives they would otherwise hold in, and she has seen the students taking the lessons and applying them outside the classroom.
“The kids will tell me anything, because I’m not their teacher and I’m not an authority figure to them, I’m just Laura, the dog lady,” she said.
One student talked about their brother who is in jail and how they gave him a Tails To Teach wristband promoting making better choices in life.
One of 100 letters written by fourth-grade students and given to Carlson at the end of the Tails To Teach Program at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Providence reflected the impact Carlson is making on the lives of many young people.
Fourth grade student Taina wrote:
For the last few weeks you were at this school, I learned much from you, and some of the things that I learned are some things you didn’t say but what I felt like you meant. I learned that some good things happen when you wait and do good things for others. And when you were here and when you weren’t there was a little change. Now some people are less mean. I hope to see you again, and if the program is still around when I get older, I would like to join.
P.S. I enjoyed your time here and the dogs. I hope you did too.
Your forever Friend,
Animal Rescue League of Southern Rhode Island Executive Director Tammy Walter said Carlson was a perfect choice for this year’s award, because she has been a proponent of humane education for years and is consistently active in local legislation around the state.
The Diamond in the Ruff fundraiser and silent auction will be held Friday from 6 to 8 pm at The Towers, 35 Ocean Road, Narragansett. Tickets cost $40, or $75 for two. All proceeds benefit Animal Rescue League of Southern Rhode Island, a nonprofit shelter, 506B Curtis Corner Road, Peace Dale.
For tickets, contact Maria Hoey at 783-7606, log on to arlsri.org, or purchase at the door.