UVALDE, Texas — Immediately following the tragedy in Uvalde May 24, a group called Canines for Christ San Antonio teamed up with the Salvation Army to provide families support at the local Civic Center.
Then, from the first to the last, the dogs and their handlers attended every funeral -- ready to comfort the grieving.
It was there where they captured the attention of a local principal.
He knew it was exactly the type of therapy his students would need.
"I knew right then and there, regardless how this school's enrollment would be, we need those dogs to come in to help us," said Joseph Olan, Principal of Sacred Heart Catholic School in Uvalde.
Olan says the school is experiencing record enrollment this school year, welcoming many new students who are overcoming tragedy.
"Especially our children that are grief struck and students that might be angry about what occurred, or just students that are confused about what's happening or what happened in our community," said Olan.
Sitting together in a classroom when KENS 5 arrived Friday morning were 5th graders Aleah Ruiz and Neliana Rodriguez, alongside 4th grader Levi Cervantes.
Rodriguez and Cervantes are newly enrolled at Sacred Heart Catholic School. Last year, they attended Robb Elementary School.
All three students say that having a dog around at school helps them relax while lifting their spirits.
"They're always happy, so they make you feel happy," said Rodriguez. "If someone's friend was arguing with them, they can just sit with a dog and it helps a lot."
"She licked me and I gave her this little treat!" Cervantes exclaimed. "We love them. And I wish they would bring them more...We just want to pet them all the time!"
"They run up to us!" said Ruiz. "They give us a lot of fun and laughter."
"How often would you like to see these dogs at school?" we asked the trio.
"Every day," they replied.
Canines for Christ is a therapy dog ministry. Friday, handlers brought Mollie, who is one of six dogs who visit Sacred Heart Catholic School once a week. Their services are free of charge.
"We work to our strengths. We want our dogs to do that as well," said Chaplain Jill Powell, the Local Chapter Leader for the San Antonio area of Canines for Christ and the National Director of Membership for the organization.
Each dog and handler from Canines for Christ is there to listen to those who need to talk, and to join others who need a prayer.
"My hope is that they feel better," Jill explained. "That some of that stress and anxiety and fear or whatever emotion that they bring with them, that can be lifted and that happiness is what remains."
"The parents see a difference in their child and they can attribute it right back to the dogs. So it changes the family system at some level as well," said Chaplain Ross Powell, Co-Leader for the local chapter of Canines for Christ and National Director of Operations and Finance for the organization.
Handlers feel the heaviness lifting at Sacred Heart Catholic School. Students who were quiet are coming out of their shell.
"Saint Francis of Assisi put it best," said Principal Olan. "He said, 'True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.' Each and every day [the dogs and handlers] add just an increment of hope, happiness and comfort for these children."
The atmosphere changes when these dogs walk in.
"I took over a class and there was a student who held one of the dogs and put their face into their fur and stayed there for about 10 whole minutes," Olan recalled. "I could see their body shake and you could tell that the student was crying. But at the end of the 10 minutes with the dog, they had a big smile on their face."
Because of the profound impact the organization is having on local students and staff, a Canines for Christ chapter in Uvalde could be on the way.
"We're just not going to come and leave you hanging," said Ross. "We're going to be here with you and walk alongside you forever."
Olan is hoping for a lifetime partnership between Sacred Heart Catholic School and Canines for Christ. He believes schools nationwide need dogs like Mollie. He said they're a small addition that can make a big difference in the happiness and well-being of children.
"Even if a tragedy doesn't strike...school should be open to allowing these type of animals come and support the students," said Olan. "Education's always evolving, always growing. It is not static. It's very fluid. This is just another aspect or dimension that people could start looking at for the social emotional well-being of children as well."
The Powells say they're already seeing an interest in Uvalde for handlers and therapy dogs who wish to participate with the organization. Ross says they're offering free scholarships for free memberships to the first few people who join.
A junior handler program is also part of their services. Olan expressed interest in integrating that program for 5th and 6th grade next school year.
If you're interested in playing a role in Canines for Christ, call Chaplain Jill Powell at 210-452-5623 or e-mail Jill@Canines4Christ.org.
During Catholic Schools Week in February, Olan is planning a special event to thank Canines for Christ handlers and dogs for their service to the school.
"[We're] so honored and privileged to be walking this journey of healing with them," said Jill. "We love Uvalde. We love Sacred Heart School. All for Jesus!"