CINCINNATI -- For anyone who has ever doubted the powerful bond between kids and their pets, consider the story of Slowpoke.
Slowpoke, naturally, is a turtle. She lived for 10 good years with a loving family and their dog before her people became homeless. Friends agreed to care for the dog when the family sought shelter from the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati. But nobody would take Slowpoke.
The family was so desperate to keep the turtle that they stuck her in a backpack and sneaked her into the churches where they slept at night and into IHN's offices where they got help during the day.
An IHN staff member finally discovered Slowpoke, and the family confessed to keeping her in hiding.
"They told us what the turtle meant for them as a family," said Stacey Burge, executive director of Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati. "And we keep the whole family together."
Burge's staff found a terrarium for Slowpoke, making her the first official resident of what has become the nonprofit organization's pet program.
"For kids who experience homelessness, they experience a series of losses," Burge said. "That's one loss that we can prevent by having pets be welcome in shelter with their humans."
Housing pets isn't the only way IHN helps families experiencing homelessness, of course. But the organization has learned over the past 25 years that animals are a critical part of meeting the needs of homeless kids. IHN also offers pet therapy, where volunteers bring a dog one afternoon each week to see the children in shelter.
"We're coming at it from what's going to make kids feel like kids and feel like their needs are being heard and respected," Burge said. "Bringing a service that meets them where they are."
'The sweetest dog in the world'
Savannah Carrick and her mom, Terri, have been part of that work since January.
Each Tuesday, they bring their fluffy Cavachon, Daisy, to visit. Daisy, a cross between a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and a Bichon Frise, is "the sweetest dog in the world," Savannah said.
It was Savannah's idea to have Daisy certified through Therapy Dog International to serve others. Now a senior at St. Ursula Academy in East Walnut Hills, Savannah used to suffer from anxiety when she was younger. Her pets always provided comfort, she said, and she knew Daisy could do the same for other kids.
"I describe her as a stuffed animal with a soul," Terri Carrick said of Daisy.
Savannah, her mom and Daisy visit IHN's offices every Tuesday after Savannah finishes school. They bring Daisy into a large playroom with an alphabet rug on the floor and toys lined up around the walls.
They tend to see different kids and parents from week to week, Carrick said, because the families don't participate after IHN has helped them find more permanent housing.
"The only thing consistent is when we walk in with Daisy and everybody swarms," she said.
Savannah said Daisy gives the kids unconditional love -- at a time when their lives are filled with stress and uncertainty.
"That dog just wants to make them feel better," Burge said.
On a recent Tuesday, a couple of the moms who were at IHN with their children said Daisy did just that.
"They love it because they do love animals," said Lauren Brown. She had just arrived at the shelter the day before with her three children, ages 6, 5 and 1 and has another baby on the way. "Even for me. I was sitting there touching her, too."
Sheneka Linder said seeing Daisy was good for her kids, too. Her sons, who are 6 and 13, both spent time petting Daisy, and her older son asked what type of dog she was.
"They love dogs," Linder said. "It's a good thing to pet a dog. It's a good distraction, especially while they're here."
Mustafa and Cocoa
Down in the basement, two formerly homeless dogs were getting love and attention from a volunteer as part of the pet program.
The program has enough space for four dogs and six cats -- plus an assortment of turtles and hamsters -- and can help pets that belong to people staying in other local homeless shelters, too.
Cocoa, a tiny, 14-year-old Chihuahua, had the cat room all to herself. She lived with members of the same family for 12 years and was staying with the dad of the family before he sought shelter at the David & Rebecca Barron Center for Men in Queensgate.
In the time Cocoa had been at IHN, the dad of her family reunited with the mom and kids. They are all staying together at a Bethany House Services shelter and planning to reunite with Cocoa when they get permanent housing, said Garrett Parsons, IHN's pet program coordinator.
Next door in the dog room, Mustafa, a 3-year-old hound, was staying in a kennel. He was so happy to see visitors that his tail thumped against the wall over and over until he got to run around outside.
Mustafa belongs to a single dad and his son and had some health problems when he arrived at the shelter, Burge said. But partnerships with local vets and animal welfare groups make it possible for IHN to get their clients' pets caught up on shots, heartworm treatments and other basic care.
While some advocates for homeless services worry that taking care of pets takes away resources from people, the pet program actually has attracted resources and volunteers that IHN never had before, Burge said.
"It's brought people interested in animal welfare to us, and it's helped them understand a little bit about homelessness and what they can do to help homeless families," Burge said.
And for anyone wondering about Slowpoke, the pet program pioneer: There is a happy ending to her story, too.
When her family got a permanent place to live a couple of years ago, they decided to let Slowpoke stay in her terrarium at IHN.
It turns out Slowpoke had always lived in a bathtub, and the family figured the terrarium was the nicest home she had ever had.
Her old family still visits her sometimes at the IHN offices, where Slowpoke is now a star of the tour that kids get when they arrive.
Burge said staffers explain that Slowpoke was homeless once, too. But look how happy she is now.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.