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SWEETHEART'S TRAVEL DIARY


November 1, 2001


California to New York City with Therapy Dogs


On September 11th, 2001 the world witnessed one of the most horrific terrorist acts ever conceived. Thousands of lives were vaporized as the New York World Trade Center crumbled into ash. In the aftermath, many more thousands of lives were traumatized. Families and friends of the victims, rescue workers, fire and police personnel, survivors, and volunteers began a grieving process. The Red Cross established a crises support unit at the Family Assistance Center, Pier 94, to assist those in dire need.

As the nation began to mourn, shock and disbelief permeated the land. The shock turned to anger, the anger turned to a very strong display of patriotism. And everybody in the United States responded with an outpouring of support to the people of New York City.

Californians felt helpless, being so far away. But they did what they could and raised millions of dollars for the Red Cross Fund. I felt frustrated in the weeks to follow. Sally, my wife, and I had developed special Therapy Dog skills over the last 5 years, and this is exactly what was needed to help people through that grieving period. I wanted to drive our therapy dogs Jackson & Sweetheart to New York City. I didn't know how or even if we could, but I was determined to make it happen.

I started making phone calls and checking the Internet. I finally contacted Delta Society, our therapy dog organization, and they directed me to Debbie Freundlich and her Delta team in New Jersey. Debbie advised me through e-mail that the American Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Red Cross, and Delta Society had coordinated an effort to make therapy dog visits to the Family Assistance Center. I told Debbie my qualifications, offered to drive to New York and requested she use us in any way she could.

In the following days I had to figure out just how we could do this trip. I put my dog training business on hold, and Sally put in for a leave of absence from her job at FEDEX.
At first Sally was hesitant to leave our safe little community in Helendale and drive cross-country into the pandemonium of New York City. After much debate we came to the conclusion that this is something we had to do. Next obstacle, how to finance the trip? We didn°¶t have the money to do this, but we did have good credit and had recently payed down our credit cards, so plastic saved the day.
Next big obstacle, I wanted to take °ßSweetheart°®. Sweetheart is a little stray mixed breed dog who was set on fire by kids almost 2 years ago. She made a miraculous recovery with the help of Mike Erhing, Dr Mori, and her adopted owner Barbara Reyes. Sweetheart is a true survivor, who I felt could inspire some of the people of New York. Almost a year ago, Barbara (a burn survivor herself) had graciously agreed for me to certify on Sweetheart and use her for therapy dog work. This little dog meant the world to Barbara and her family. Taking Sweetheart away for 3 weeks would be difficult. So I put off asking her. A few days later Barbara called me. In an emotional plea of certainty Barbara said, °ßCharlie, you have to take Sweetheart to New York. They need her.°®
I spent hours on the Internet trying to find a Hotel. One we could afford and would take two dogs, a 75lbs German Shepherd and 35lbs mixed Beagle. I made reservations at The Astor on the Park. Located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan it was across the street from Central Park, cost $80 a night and accepted a small dog. I figured I°¶d worry about the last part once we got there. Curiously, Astor was the name of my first Patrol Dog in the US Air Force. He was a German Shepherd that fired my passions to work with dogs, and led me to this very mission.

Sally's leave of absence was approved, the Honda Odyssey was packed, the dogs were eager, and we were on our way to New York City, leaving Helendale, California at 7:31am on Monday October 8th,2001.

After a long and hard drive, we arrived in New York City on Friday, October 12th, 2001 at 4:00 pm. At check-in the clerk told us that they did not accept any dogs, not even little ones. I showed the clerk Jackson's and Sweethearts Delta Pet Partner identifications and informed him that we were here from California to do volunteer work at the Family Assistance Center. The clerk smiled, thanked me for what we were doing, and proceeded to give us a room. The room was small, but clean, and had a view of Central Park across the street.

We settled into the room, unpacked, and took the dogs for a walk in the park. Central Park was very impressive, big, beautiful, and lots of people with dogs. At 6:00pm we loaded up the dogs and started driving towards the area of the World Trade Center crash site, what has become known as, °ßGround Zero°®. The first stop we made was a Fire Station in Hells Kitchen. As we approached the station we saw a makeshift shrine in front of the building with flowers, candles and pictures. A few people were out front taking pictures. We approached the first fireman we saw and explained that we had these wonderful dogs that do therapy work in hospitals, schools, veteran°¶s homes and other places. The fireman looked very sad and somewhat somber. As we explained why we were there you could see a puzzled looked come across his face. We then introduced the dogs and told him their stories. Within minutes he was petting Jackson and Sweetheart, smiling and asking questions about them. Several other firemen who gathered around the dogs then joined us. They also started to smile, laugh, and pet the dogs. We took Polaroid pictures with each fireman and the dogs and gave them to the firemen. At first they were very surprised asking, °ßThese pictures are for us?°®. I explained to them that these pictures were to remind them that even the people of California are thinking about them and wishing them well. They thanked us profusely saying they would put these pictures in their lockers and look at them every day. As we left they smiled and again thanked us.

We then found another fire station on LaFeyette Avenue. Had a difficult time finding a parking place (I understand now why people in NYC do not have cars) so we did like the New Yorkers do and double-parked just down from the station. Very similar scene as the last station, except the firemen we saw here were extremely depressed. They were still in shock. They would move about the station in a trance like state, looking at us but not really seeing us. We found out later, 14 of their men had been killed in their rescue efforts at the World Trade Center. I picked out one particular fireman that looked the worse and explained why we there. I introduced him to Sweetheart and told him about her story of being set on fire by kids. As I told the story he became somewhat animated, and horrified. I told him how Sweetheart not only survived but also turned this tragic situation into something wonderful with the help of many people. By the end of the story he was petting and praising Sweetheart saying she was an inspiration. Several other depressed firemen came over and started petting and praising her. I had Jackson do a few tricks (sit high, high five, speak) and all of the firemen laughed and were amazed. We took Polaroid's and gave them the firemen. Again a look of surprise and a huge outpouring of gratitude. By the time we left we saw many smiles and heard the sweet tones of laughter emitting from within. I have seen the power of dogs in pulling people out of the depths of hopelessness on numerous occasions but it still amazes me.

We returned to the Aster emotionally exhausted. Our first night in New York City and we had met such wonderful, sincere people. We were looking forward to tomorrow's visit at the Family Assistance Center with excitement and anticipation. The dogs were also exhausted. We gave them massages put them to bed and we all slept through the night with nary a stir.

We were scheduled for our first visit at the Family Assistance Center at 12:00pm on Saturday, October 13th. We left the hotel at 10:00am, arrived at the Center at 10:20am. We groomed, brushed and freshened up the dogs preparing them for their visit. As we approached the Center we saw °ßThe Wall°®. Pictures of missing loved ones. The photos had descriptions, poems, and messages attached to them. They were posted on a long plywood fence. It was overwhelming. There were thousands of faces, with loving desperate pleas of help. It hit us very hard. We were looking at every day people, not unlike our own friends, neighbors and relatives. Now these people existed only in hearts and minds of their nearest and dearest.

After passing through heavy security we entered a large building known as Pier 94. The Red Cross and City of New York had established the Family Assistance Center at this location to assist Families and survivors. Inside were thousands of people. Everybody had on tags identifying themselves as Family, Staff, or volunteer. The Red Cross personnel were wearing vests some identifying themselves as Mental Health, Grief Councilor, or Chaplain. The large warehouse building was partitioned off with curtains, designating areas such as Legal Aid, Financial Aid, Religious preference, interpreters, Children's Corner, Food Service, Death Certificate issuance, and communications. As busy as it looked, it seemed very well organized and free flowing. We marveled at the efficiency and cooperation. Everybody seemed to have something to do, and everybody was doing something.

We checked in at the ASPCA desk and were given a briefing by Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, Senior Director of Counseling Services. Basically it was our job to walk about the building with our dogs. If anybody showed an interest we would stop and interact with them, letting them pet and play with Jackson and Sweetheart. Within the first half hour we made contact with several people. Most were °ßFamily°® members who seemed stressed or depressed. It was amazing how the simple act of petting and interacting with our dogs would create such a stir. We would stop to talk to one or two people and before too long a crowd would gather around us. People were fascinated and curious, but most of all they were relaxed, smiling, and open. Some of them would tell us about their loved ones in a comforting strong resolve. Others would well up with tears and hug the dogs. Afterwards they would lavish us with praises of gratitude. Telling us how much being there helped them.

We proceeded to the children's corner where there were many kids. Inside were hundreds of toys scattered about the room, and numerous mental health personnel working with the kids. As we entered, the kids lit up like Christmas trees, and started playing with the dogs. Off into one corner I noticed a 7-8 year old boy sitting on the floor by himself. He was very withdrawn. Several mental health workers were attempting, in vain, to get the boy to play, talk and just open up. I could see it was a frustrating situation. I grabbed Jackson, and laid him down approximately 10 feet away from the child. I started playing with Jackson and noticed the boy making quick glances our way. I then took a large squeaky ball and rolled it towards the boy hitting him on the leg. He angrily pushed the ball back and Jackson grabbed it. Jackson squeezed the ball and rolled it back to the boy. The boy rolled it back to Jackson. This went on for about 3-4 minutes. With each roll of the ball the boy would open up a little at a time. until he started to smile. I then grabbed Jackson and went on to the next child. About 10 minutes later I looked back and saw the boy playing and talking to the mental health workers. Thirty minutes later one of the mental health workers approached me and told me the boy had lost his parents in the crash. Mental health professionals had been working with him for several days with no progress, and were very concerned about his recovery. She said, "You walk in with Jackson and in less than 5 minutes there is a breakthrough. He's going to be OK, thanks to your help." So simple, so effective.


After the boat ride an enthusiastic Sweetheart and Sally met Jackson and me. The dogs got so excited acting as if we had been separated for days rather than just 2 hours. We started for the cafeteria to take a break and get something to eat.

As we headed in that direction we would be stopped every few yards by people asking questions about Sweetheart’s burn scars. The skin graft is very noticeable, starting halfway down her back, leaving an exposed pink little butt. The questions were well meaning and sweet. “Is that abad haircut or what?” “She have some kind of skin disease?” “Is this one of those hairless dogs?” I would reply, “No, no. Some kids doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. That’s actually a skin graft that has completely healed.” Of course that shocks them, and their reaction is at first apologetic and then sympathetic. “I had no idea!” Next thing you know they are calling over all their friends to meet Sweetheart. Small crowds gathered around us. They would pet and hug Sweetheart and Jackson. Some with tearing eyes, all with smiling faces by the time wewalked away.

The reaction was so heartwarming. One gentleman approached Sweetheart and hugged her as tears flowed down his face. After a moment he straightened up with a smile and told Sally “That felt so good! I was so stressed out. Itjust left my body as I hugged her.” Then a look of worry came across his face, “I’m so sorry to have done that to such a sweetheart. I gave her my stress!” Sally reassured him that Sweetheart could handle it. “That’s why she’s here, to help with that stress. Don’t worry, they both get lots of love and massage during the day. That’s our job, helping them with their stress.”

The cafeteria was busy and filled. Off into one section was a resting area where police, fire and rescue personnel occupied numerous couches. The pace here was slower and relaxed. As we ate, Jackson and Sweetheart lay on the carpeted floor, sometimes drifting off to a light sleep. People would still approach and ask about the dogs, asking to pet them. I toldthem that what the dogs needed right now is rest and maybe a light massage. Then I ask, “Would you like to massage them?” Jackson and Sweetheart are now lying on the floor, getting soothing massages, drifting into a deep comfortable sleep. (They’re snoring softly!)
After lunch, we scheduled our next visit for Monday morning, said our goodbyes and drove back to the hotel. As we left the Family Assistance Center Sally commented on our first day. “This has been the most wonderful experience I have ever had. I know in my heart that we have done the right thing by making this trip with these wonderful dogs.” The feeling was exhilarating and overwhelming,
Sunday morning we arose to the sounds of honking horns. I looked out the window and saw thousands of people in a walk-a-thon to find a cure for breast cancer. I put the dog’s vests on and took them down to join the march. We walked for several blocks meeting so many friendly people. They loved Sweetheartand Jackson and were amazed at them doing therapy work.

 

I returned to our hotel where Sally and I had a breakfast of New York bagels, coffee, and orange juice. We decided to drive into Manhattan and see Times Square. By late morning we arrived to the area and found an underground public parking lot. I drove up to the parking attendants, stopped the van, and brought the dogs out. Within seconds 10 parking attendants all excited and smiling about our dogs surrounded us. As they petted the dogs we told them their stories and they were amazed. More cars drove in behind us. As the passengers would exit, the parking attendants would bring them over to meet Sweetheart and Jackson. We took some Polaroid pictures of them and the dogs and gave them to the attendants.
Our attendant told us he would park our van up frontclose to them so they could keep an eye on it.
Times Square had returned to the fast pace, peoplein a hurry, no time to visit, existence it once was. But many people would stop to ask about Sweetheart and Jackson. After hearing their story people responded with warmth and gratitude. They asked to shake our hands and thanked us for helping. They were deeply touched by our presence in their time of need.

We had lunch in Bryant Park. The sun was warm, the air crisp with the scent of moist grass. We met three young ladies who had been best friends in high school. They were all living in different parts of thecountry and had decided to reunite in New York City. This was their way of supporting the people of New York City. For them it had been a very profound experience.

They were all dog lovers. You could tell, it was such a treat for them to be able to meet Jackson and Sweetheart. One of the ladies confided in Sally saying, “I feel a little guilty. I hate to say it but. I miss my dog more than I miss my husband.” Of course our conversations led to Sweethearts story. After telling just the burning part, one of the ladies became so upset she started weeping and couldn’t stop. Even as we tried to console her, telling of Sweethearts recovery and wonderful therapy work, she wept uncontrollably. Several minutes later she settled down. We took some pictures said goodbyes and were on our way to Chinatown.
I wanted to find a police station to visit. Sally was a bit apprehensive thinking they might not want to be bothered or too busy. I figured the only way to find out was to ask. We were fortunate to have found a parking spot that was one block from the 5Th Precinct.

As we approached the Station we saw New York’s finest at their best. He was tall, sixfoot five, broad shouldered and impressive in his sharp dress blues. He spoke with an Irish lilt that was as charming as his big bushy mustache. He had a stern look about him as he stood guard at the front door. I ask him,“This might sound a little strange but. We are from California and have these wonderful dogs. They’re therapy dogs and we would like to make a visit.”

A huge smile jumped outwith excitement. He told of how his Maltese got him through his stress and grief. “Every night after a grueling 12-16 hour day, I would come home to her happy face. She helped me escape. I would spend hours just stroking her.”

He invited us in, introducing us to the other officers. Before long a small group of officers had gathered around the dogs. One young officer started talking about his ordeal, “I saw people jumping out of windows and hitting the ground. I don’t dream any more, I just have nightmares.” Within a short time the officers were smiling and seemed to feel at ease with the dogs. We took Polaroid pictures and gave them to the officers. Again we left showered with gratitude.

We made brief visits to two more Fire Stations, Chinatown and Little Italy, and headed back to our hotel.
Monday morning we were up early, arriving at the Family Assistance Center by 9:oo am. My scheduled boat ride with Sweetheart was at 10:00 am. As we entered the Center, to our surprise, several people called out “Sweetheart and Jackson are in the building!”

Within minutes people were rushing to our location saying, “I heard so much about Sweetheart and Jackson, I just had to meet them” “I heard what Jackson did for that little boy. It was so touching.” Or, “I heard Sweethearts story and had to meet this brave little dog.” One group of religious ministers upon meeting Jackson and sweetheart proclaimed, “It is an honor to finally meet the famous Jackson and Sweetheart. We have heard so many wonderful things.”

By 9:45 am Sweetheart and I were in the staging area of the boat ride. Sweetheart strode into the room with her head high and her tail wagging. Without hesitation she actively sought out family members, looking for an approving signal. When someone would smile and call out to her she would bounce over to them, and let go a flood of joy. The response was an absolute delight. Sweetheart’s contagious enthusiasm spreads. It fills the room with smilesof resolve.

It was a windy day with high swells in the river. The boat ride over to GroundZero was rocky and rough. This seemed to serve as a distraction, as most family members were holding onto somethingto keep their balance. Sweetheart weathered the rough ride on her short four legs, much better than us two leggedspecies.
At Ground Zero we climbed the stairs to the observation platform, Sweetheart and I staying in the background. After a brief moment I saw a man greeting each family member giving his condolence. Upon seeing his face I realized it was Mayor Rudy Giuliani. After greeting the family members, he made ita point to thank each volunteer.

We were the last in line as Mayor Rudy walked up to me and shook my hand. I said in a hurried voice, “This is Sweetheart and we came from California to help!” He looked at Sweetheart, bent down and petted her on the head. When he straightened up he looked at me sincerely and said with moisture in his eyes,“Thank you so much for what you’re doing.”

The ride back was much calmer which gave me a chance to make several contacts. Sweetheart warmed to the situations by toning down her response. She seemed to do more “cuddling”. She seemed quieter, more listening, accepting. This approach worked well in comforting the families. On one occasion Sweetheart took a liking to a Spanish speaking, older man.

She sat at the end of his bench staring up at him,looking for that signal. He looked down at her and smiled. She cocked her head to the side, wagged her tail and continued her stare. I gestured to him if he would like to pet her. His smile widens as he nods in approval. I have Sweetheart do a “paws up” on the bench next to him. He reaches down and starts to pet her and laugh. The man scoots in on the bench making room for her to jump up next to him. He indicates to me to have her jump up closer. So I have her jump up onto the bench. The next thing I hear is, “Don’t do that!”
“He is has a fear of dogs!” the interpreter yells. I apologized immediately and went to take her off when the man said, “no, no. Its ok, ok!”
Sweetheart’s tenacious attitude warmed his heart in a special way; he had clearly over come his fear of dogs.
Sweetheart cuddled up next to the man resting her head on his lap. He laughed and held her to him. After a brief moment he thanked her and she is on her way to the next in need.

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