Canine Based Ministry At Local Lutheran Church Continues To Offer Comfort
In the five years since a golden retriever named Maggie took up residence within the membership of Christ the King Lutheran Church, she has become a fixture of the Mount Pleasant Road house of worship.
Members are "used to seeing her" all the time, according to the Reverend Rob Morris, pastor of Newtown's Lutheran church. "She is here with us each weekend. She has done funerals, and shut-in visits, and many events."
Depending on the moment, Maggie, now 6½, can appear humored and animated or wise and thoughtful. During the interview with lead handler Cathy Reiss, handler Cathy Swanson, and Pastor Morris, which served as the basis for this feature, Maggie alternated easily between the two spectrums, responding to voice tones and topics of conversation among those in the room with her.
Maggie was formally adopted into the church in September 2013 during a Passing of The Leash ceremony. Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dogs were in town that weekend for the special event at the church that formally established the Newtown Comfort ministry. They were also special guests on the church's Labor Day Parade float.
LCC teams were first in town nine months earlier, arriving the day after 12/14 to begin offering comfort to residents and visitors still reeling from the events of the previous day.
Today, Maggie is a well-traveled canine, having been as far west as Houston and as far north as Rochester, N.Y., and its metropolitan area. Many of her trips are pay it forward efforts by Christ the King members, now trained as LCC handlers.
Maggie and her handlers have been to Boston to comfort those affected by the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings; Alexian Brothers Medical Center, in Elk Grove, Ill., following tornadoes in late 2013; and to the Houston, Texas, area following Hurricane Harvey last summer.
She also has a number of locations she visits regularly. In addition to being on hand for worship service at Christ the King each Sunday morning, she has weekly visits at four of Newtown's public schools, monthly appearances at Families United in Newtown events and at Almost Home Adult Daycare in Danbury, and twice monthly visits at the VA hospital in West Haven and Village Crest Center for Health and Rehabilitation in New Milford.
She has visited or appeared for numerous Newtown organizations, including C.H. Booth Library, Parks & Recreation, Masonicare, Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue, Ben's Lighthouse, Honan Funeral Home, Masonicare, Nunnawauk Meadows, and The Children's Adventure Center, among many others.
Visits have been done during public events as well as during private times at those locations.
Maggie has offered comfort to countless students and faculty members at schools in and around Newtown.
She was on site when the community was invited to visit the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2016. She has also offered grief support at schools in Brookfield, Danbury, Ridgefield, Waterbury, West Suffield, and Wilton, among other locations.
She has been on site for students as they head into midterms or finals, offering "exam time comfort," or visited schools simply to do meet and greet events.
In addition to her home church, Maggie has also visited multiple houses of worship across the region. She has been to Lutheran and Evangelical Lutheran churches in Danbury, Hebron, Manchester, and Trumbull.
Maggie visits hospitals, funeral homes, medical facilities, and nursing homes.
More Canine Comfort
Her sister, Addie, is an LCC K-9 Comfort Dog at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Danbury. Immanuel Lutheran is also home to Leah, a second LCC K-9 Comfort Dog. Addie and Leah have made numerous visits to Newtown, according to Pastor Morris. Leah's handler, in fact, lives in Newtown, so she is in town much of her time. Maggie, Addie, and Leah are three of the six LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs who have been placed in the Northeast, also according to Pastor Morris.
"They also have continued to be available for situations where we need more than one dog or if there was an event that we really wanted to have a presence at but couldn't get Maggie there," he said. The recent Pony Rides for Jessica Rekos fundraiser was one such event, he said.
Originally scheduled for May 6, this year's event was postponed a few weeks due to inclement weather that moved into the area in the days before the early May event. Maggie was already scheduled to be out of town on May 20, so Addie stepped into her place to represent Newtown Comfort at the special event that day.
Last month, Maggie and handlers traveled around town, checking on residents as they dug out following the May 15 tornado/macroburst.
"We went out where people were working," said Ms Reiss. "She's also been to Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and Toy Tree."
The following day, she and Ms Swanson were on the road to Maryland. Abbie and Leah and their handlers also traveled to Maryland, first in April and again last month.
The first visit coincided with the first day students and faculty returned to Great Mills High School in Saint Mary's County, Maryland, following a shooting there.
"The first day, we went with teachers; and the second day, students came in," said Ms Swanson. She and Maggie were joined by four additional LCC K-9 teams for that trip.
"Maggie and the other dogs were able to greet the teachers and the students as they returned to school and spend time with anybody who needed to have time with them," she said.
That visit, said Ms Reiss, was the first time anyone from Newtown Comfort had been to a post-school shooting location outside of Newtown.
"We told our handlers to think about whether they were ready," she said. "When you get the call, usually you have 24 to 48 hours to respond."
What is more likely to happen following an incident, the handlers said, is that Newtown Comfort hears from someone who wants to arrange a visit as soon as possible. That happened just this week, said Ms Reiss.
"We were at Reed School on Tuesday during the recess breaks," she said. The visits were in response to the passing early Monday morning of one of the school's students, who had reportedly been ill. "All three dogs - Maddie, Addie and Leah - went to the school for that."
The Maryland shooting, the women pointed out, was a little different with its timing because the school system had gone into its already scheduled spring break immediately after the shooting.
"They were out of school for a few days" after the shooting, and then their spring break came up, "so there was time to plan," said Ms Reiss. "That's unusual."
Her voice shaking while she recounted her return visit, Ms Swanson said it was an emotional time for everyone when the school did reopen.
"People were going back into a building that there was an incredible trauma in," she recalled. "There was a lot of prayer going into it."
In addition to the high school, Maggie and handlers visited Bay District Volunteer Fire Department, the Office of Saint Mary's County Sheriff, and Little Sonbeams Christian Preschool, in nearby Lexington Park, Md.
Newtown Comfort was invited to return to Maryland last month. Scheduled to leave on May 16, "it took us hours to get together," said Ms Swanson, "because that was the day after the storm here."
Maggie and Ms Swanson spent a full school day reconnecting with many of the people they had met in April.
"Knowing that we have a team behind us in Newtown who are praying for us while we are out there is so helpful," said Ms Swanson, who was the one Newtown Comfort handler to make the return trip. A steady stream of texts from Christ the King members reminded her that she was not forgotten at home.
It is key, she added, for handlers to keep their emotions in check during visits.
"It really is about ministering to the people you meet and being available to them," she said, admitting there have been times when she feels tears approaching. "I occasionally take a deep breath and remain in the moment."
One Dog, Multiple Handlers
Currently, there are about a dozen members of Christ the King Lutheran Church who are LCC K-9 trained as handlers for Maggie. While it is much more common for a comfort dog to be someone's pet, and therefore have just one handler when they go out for visits or appearances, training through Lutheran Church Charities means Maggie responds to the same commands regardless of who is holding her lead.
"We have to all be consistent with what we're expecting," said Pastor Morris. "It's much more natural for a dog to have a master, one alpha, not 12."
The training for the handlers is constant, he said.
When she heads out, according to Ms Reiss, Maggie is often accompanied by two handlers.
"Handlers need to do double duty," said Ms Reiss. "You're interacting with people who need you, and also keeping an eye on Maggie."
Part of that, the women agreed, is to make sure Maggie is doing well while being surrounded by people sometimes showing raw emotion.
"We know when she's a little off because we see her all the time," Ms Reiss said.
A Good Deed For Maggie
Through all of these visits, Newtown Comfort's canine meets people of all ages. One of those people, a young man who lives in Woodbury, has taken a chance meeting with Maggie and turned it into his Mitzvah.
Josh Smotroff, a member of B'nai Israel in Southbury, is working on his Mitzvah this spring. The project began after his grandfather fell ill a few months ago and needed to spend time recovering at The Lutheran Home in Southbury.
During that time, Josh and his family would visit his grandfather, occasionally taking the family dog with them. Those visits brightened the days for Josh's grandfather as well as other patients and residents of the healthcare and residential facility.
When it was time to determine his Mitzvah project, Josh told The Newtown Bee this week, he knew he wanted to do something that involved dogs.
"I've always loved dogs," he said June 11. "At our temple, it's tradition that when someone does their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, they do a type of a good deed. There's no real criteria for it, other than it has to benefit the community. I've always grown up with dogs and loved dogs, so I wanted to do something that involved them."
While brainstorming on the project, Josh and his family made contact with Doug Fuchs, Josh said.
"He is a member of Christ the King, and he put us in contact with Cathy Reiss, and then we went through that," he said this week.
About one month after Josh's grandfather was released from The Lutheran Home ("He's doing well now," the 13-year-old reported), Josh met with Maggie and her handlers, and even attended a full worship service at the Newtown church.
Maggie was waiting for churchgoers in the entryway of Christ the King Church that morning, as she does most Sundays, he said.
"She was just sitting quietly, meeting people as they came in," Josh said. "During the service, I was sitting in the back with the handlers. Maggie was very calm, lying on the ground, not making any noise.
"The work she does is amazing," he added. "I didn't know she travelled around the country."
Shortly after that visit, Josh created a GoFundMe account for Maggie and his mitzvah, setting a goal of $2,000. He set up the account up so that the donations go directly into the church's bank account, according to Ms Reiss.
The online campaign has done very well. It has surpassed its goal, in fact. As of June 12, the account balance was $2,709.
One of the larger donations to that campaign was from the GoFundMe Team. Through its "Gives Back" program, according to the online fundraising site, employees nominate GoFundMe campaigns "that move or inspire them." GoFundMe then selects and donates up to $1,000 to the qualifying campaigns "that can make a big difference in someone's life," again according to the website. Three weeks ago, GoFundMe's program made a $750 donation to Josh's campaign.
"Toward the beginning of the campaign, I received help from a GoFundMe employee when I was setting up the account," Josh said. "When I told them what I was doing, they nominated me and the campaign for the GiveBack program."
In addition, Josh received permission from the faculty at Rumsey Hall, the private school in Washington Depot that he attends, to do a fundraiser at the school. Students who donated $2 were allowed to wear casual dress for a day at the prep school, and ended up raising nearly $400 for his fundraiser, he said.
'In Good Company'
In addition to her regular visits, Maggie will be a featured guest on an upcoming community access cable program. Pastor Morris and Maggie are scheduled to meet with Ron Dukenski in mid-July, at Spectrum Communications on Commerce Road, to do an interview for an upcoming episode of "In Good Company with Ron Dukenski."
The show program, Ms Reiss said, is an interview-style, public affairs show where they talk to and about interesting people, places, and things happening here in western Connecticut. The Team Maggie group has been told, according to Ms Reiss, that Mr Dukenski is interested in hearing from Pastor Morris about what the ministry does for the local and larger world community.
An air date will be announced at a later time.
In addition to her busy schedule, Maggie is represented through active social media outlets. She has a Facebook page (MaggieComfortDog) and Instagram feed (LCCK9Maggie). Churches and groups are welcome to invite her for a visit by e-mailing Maggie@K9Comfort.org or calling 203-436-6300.
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