Driving Miss Daisy

On the floor of room 113 at Cross Timbers Elementary lays a colorful round rug. The letters of the alphabet line the edge, marking places to sit for energetic youngsters. The rest of the class is on their way, but already a young strawberry-blonde has taken her place within the circle. She’s about seven years old. Soft curls frame big beautiful brown eyes.

Suddenly, the door bursts open and a dozen children pile into the room, jockeying for position next to their young visitor. Used to the attention, the girl calmly says hello to each child…with a tremendous kiss. Then, she stretches out and asks for a belly rub.

Two years ago, Keith and Sarah Montgomery began a routine. Their “golden doodle” Daisy seemed to have the perfect disposition for visiting those with special needs. And even though Daisy is not a fan of cars, she would willingly hop into the back seat for the chance to meet new friends. As part of a then-new organization known as H.A.L.O. (Human Animal Link of Oklahoma), Daisy was helping to meet a growing need for willing owners and their furry family members to visit those in special education programs, nursing homes and hospitals. Now, Daisy has her rounds, and everybody knows her name.

‘Daisy is spelled with a D! Everyone in the room, from the students to the teacher (to the visiting writer, hiding in the corner) is excited and engaged. Daisy crawls around the circle on her elbows, enjoying a personal “hello” from each and every child.

“Hi, Daisy! My name is…” – a little boy’s greeting gets interrupted by the kind of wet kiss that kids love.

Even when the hugs are just a little too tight, Daisy patiently gives everyone a few moments of one-on-one time without a flinch. And, when Keith and Sarah lead an old tune about a boy promising a girl named Daisy a ride on a bicycle built for two, the whole class falls apart with laughter. How silly — a bike-riding dog! And then the pleas come: “Do it again! Do it again!”

H.A.L.O. executive director Terri Smith says the organization began long before its official 2009 birthday. There came a time during her 30-year career as a special education teacher when Terri began bringing her own dog, Shana, into the classroom to work with her students. The response Shana received was so positive, Terri began writing special curriculum for working with animals. Even after retiring in 2005, Terri and Shana continued to serve with a variety of organizations, including the Department of Human Services, youth and family services, assisted living centers, nursing homes and hospitals. Eventually, Terri saw a need for a nonprofit organization with a focused objective —providing animal-assisted therapy for Oklahomans in need. Others who shared Terri’s passion could join forces and make a bigger impact.

H.A.L.O. sells no products or services. It is entirely funded by donations and operated by volunteers, and everything from insurance to the animals’ service vests is obtained from Oklahoma businesses. As a 501c3 170b nonprofit, no one working for, or with, H.A.L.O. gets paid. “Oh, we’re paid,” Keith clarifies. “It’s just not in money.”

“People have health and mental conditions they didn’t ask for,” Terri says. “They want to withdrawal. They don’t want to bother people with their problems for a number of reasons.” But, people would respond to an animal, reaching a place of comfort they couldn’t reach with a family member, friend or even a therapist.

According to H.A.L.O.’s website (www.yourhalofoundation.org), 50 dogs, plus a horse, are part of the team. Details on how to get involved and requirements for pets fill the site’s pages, and there is always room for those who want to serve. “The right animal and the right person — the perfect pair — find the right place to serve,” adds Terri. And some, like Daisy, serve three days a week or more, in a variety of locations. Others feel comfortable in only one or two settings. But all are welcome, and all have a tremendous impact on the lives of
those in need.

And for more than an hour, Daisy is the center of the world in room 113. The children perform a song they’ve been working on, complete with hand motions and lots of laughter. One by one, they ask questions or tell Daisy about their own dog at home. A few just want to tell Daisy what they’ll be doing after school today.

When the time finally comes for Daisy to say goodbye, it seems that Daisy lingers as long as the children. “Daisy doesn’t want to leave. Should we leave her here?” asks Sarah. And of course it only elicits one response: “YES!”

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