March 19, 2013

Animals offer comfort, healing in Newtown, Sandy Hook


---- — PERU — Three miniature donkeys — Celeste, Freedom and Cleo — brought joy to a community grieving those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“They walked right into the children’s classrooms,” marveled Judy Sims, director of the Children’s Adventure Center in Sandy Hook, Conn. “We just loved it.”

The furry, long-eared donkeys, who live on Butternut Farm in Peru, are part of Thera-Pets, a nonprofit ministry of animal therapy.

The Rev. Dr. Ken Parker and his volunteers take them to nursing homes, hospitals and other places; at the farm, there are programs for children with special needs and also those who are grieving.


In Connecticut, accompanied by a Thera-Pets team, Celeste, Freedom and Cleo stood patiently for petting and hugs.

“It was very peaceful,” volunteer SaeJin Trombley said. “They knew what they had to do.”

Thera-Pets visited the preschool and four churches earlier this month; the delight the donkeys and volunteers brought has stayed with the people there.

“The whole group was so outreaching and caring,” Sims said in a phone interview Monday.

The donkeys seemed to sense the pain the people still feel there, said Jackie Douglass, another volunteer.

She remembers how one took the initiative to approach a woman, she said.

“‘You knew I needed you, didn’t you?’” she remembered the woman saying to the donkey.

“Over and over again the donkeys seemed to know,” said Candyce Trombley, SaeJin’s mom.

One woman told the volunteers that her experience with the donkeys was the best day of her life, Douglass said.

“Many of us needed and continue to need reassurance and comfort,” Sims wrote afterward in a letter of thanks to Thera-Pets.

“Animals have a way of giving us that unconditional gift of love and sensitivity that can help us in our healing process.”


The process to arrange the trip was slow to begin with, Parker said.

“They wanted to make sure that we were indeed a legitimate organization and that we didn’t have any hidden agenda,” he said. “They had some problems with people who were not truly authentic.”

Parker and his team, also including Sue LaMoy, knew this would perhaps be one of their most difficult assignments.

“(But) the exposure we had and the anticipation did not prepare us,” Candyce said. “I don’t think any of us will be the same.”

“None of us had experience with this type of tragedy — the size of it, the scope of it,” Parker said.

“It changed me completely,” Douglass said. “You felt their pain.”

LaMoy said she could sympathize in some respects with the loss the families of Newtown endured.

“Going on, in June, seven years ago, I lost my husband,” she said.

The donkeys’ visit, Sims said, lasted twice as long as it was supposed to.

“The children didn’t want them to leave,” she said.

“It was definitely new and exciting for the kids,” SaeJin said.


The trip was strictly for healing, not to hear the Newtown residents’ memories of the horror of that day in December, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 first-graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“We didn’t ask for their stories,” said Douglass.

But Parker did learn that the tragedy had very closely touched some of those who visited the donkeys.

Eight of the children who died had been part of the congregation at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown, where Thera-Pets spent some time.

Others had once attended the Children’s Adventure Center. The preschool is located only a few hundred feet from the Elementary School.

Parker was told that, on the day of the shooting, staff at the preschool were initially told there were multiple shooters, and they scrambled to secure the building as the children watched a flood of police officers, some with dogs and guns, through the windows, Parker said.

“They didn’t have any idea what they were dealing with at all.”


Visiting Newtown has brought the Thera-Pets team closer, Parker said.

“It welded us together with a spiritual glue that will bind us forever,” he said. “It’s been one of the high points in our 10-year history for sure.”

Thera-Pets has been invited back for another visit, he added.

That may be because its message mirrors a sentiment that Douglass said was posted in every building they visited.

“It said, ‘Sandy Hook chooses love.’”

— News Editor Suzanne Moore contributed to this report.