This month's Unsung Hero is Stephanie Kallas, whose work to bring therapy dogs into Grain Valley Schools and four dogs in outside districts, provided an avenue to honor her brother Michael.
When Kallas began working to bring therapy dogs into schools, she was the Behavior Interventionalist at North Middle School.
"I worked with students who were struggling with a lot of issues, but mainly it was working with students to help them when their emotions were big. A lot of times, I found myself thinking 'Gosh, if I could have a dog here to work with them', because I'd seen the power of that with my own kids."
For four years, Kallas worked with building and district administration, working through many hurdles in order to be able to begin training the first dog, Bruce, to work in the school. Bruce is a Woodle, a combination of a Wheaton Terrier and Poodle, both hypoallergenic breeds due to their lack of shedding.
Just as Kallas had completed training with Bruce and was preparing to start the school year, her older brother Michael passed away.
"He struggled with mental health his entire life, and the one time I ever saw him comfortable in his own skin was when he was with a dog."
The way to honor her brother's memory became clear when she began thinking about the lengthy path she endured to get Bruce into the school.
"There's got to be some way I can help teachers get a therapy dog, because it was a really long, hard journey. You don't know what you don't know until you start getting into it."
So Kallas began Michaels Peaceful Paws to help other teachers with the training, insurance, supplies, and medical costs involved in taking on a therapy dog. The nonprofit organization has assisted in the training and placement of therapy dogs at each of Grain Valley's schools, and each dog's name honors Kallas's brother in some way.
Bruce is named after Bruce Springsteen, one of Michael's favorite artists, and Norah at the Early Childhood Center is named for another favorite artist, Norah Jones. Harold, at Grain Valley High School, is named after their grandfather.
When Kallas first introduced Bruce, she thought he'd be working with "the 2-5% of students that really struggle with mental health issues".
"What I really saw was kids were really motivated to work because they got the reward of getting to work with him. Kids felt more regulated. Kids who struggled to get to school were getting to school because they were motivated to get to see him, and help make sure he had water in the morning. Kids who were home sick would email me and say, 'Please let Bruce know that I am home sick, and I'll see him tomorrow.'. It just shocked me how much of a difference he makes," Kallas said.
"There have been a few instances where kids had to receive bad news, and Bruce was able to be there with them."
Kallas, who receives 10-12 inquires a week from other teachers and districts interested in having their own therapy dogs, is now focused on creating resources for teachers and districts interested in bringing therapy dogs to their schools. In addition, Kallas is also interested in developing a certification program for therapy dogs to ensure the handlers understand what it takes to advocate and care for the dog.
"A dog can't say, 'I'm exhausted'. And they absorb all of emotions they're taking in during the day. I worry that it gets to be such a fad, that there are not the standards and protections needed for the dogs."
Kallas emphasizes that therapy dogs are not service dogs, who are highly trained to complete a set of tasks for one person. "Therapy dogs are simply pets who are trained to help a lot of people make their day better."
To learn more about Michaels Peaceful Paws and follow along with Bruce's adventures, follow Kallas and Bruce on Facebook at Michaels Peaceful Paws.
Stephanie Kallas with her therapy dog Bruce relax at the end of a school day at Grain Valley North Middle School. Photo credit: Valley News staff