Over the years, Pam Gaber and her soon-to-be therapy dog, Gabriel, had met thousands of children. But she will always remember the little boy in the Spider-Man shirt that started her journey with therapy dogs. He'd just been admitted to Crisis Nursery, a Phoenix shelter that takes in young children facing abuse and neglect. Pam, a regular volunteer, brought Gabriel to the shelter's Christmas party dressed up as Rudolph. When the sobbing child nuzzled the silver Weimaraner, he started to smile and then laugh. "I was watching an animal reach a child in a way no adult could," recalls Pam, 58.
That afternoon inspired Pam to have Gabriel registered as a therapy dog, and the duo became regulars at the Crisis Nursery. She recruited two friends with dogs to register them as therapy dogs well, and once word spread to other agencies of their success with the kids, "it all snowballed," says Pam.
Her nonprofit, Gabriel's Angels, founded in 2000, provides free pet therapy to abused and at-risk children from infancy to age 18. These children come from shelters, after-school programs and other organizations in the Phoenix, Prescott, Sedona and Tucson, AZ, area.
At a typical session, which involves groups of 8 to 12 kids, activities are based on age. Younger children pet and brush the dogs and give them treats. Teens often snuggle the therapy dogs as pillows.
Each agency is assigned a therapy animal that visits regularly. The kids become very attached. "We're teaching compassion, empathy and trust," says Pam. "The children realize that animals are a lot like they are." To help with the transition of a pet's retirement, they throw it a goodbye party.
As CEO of Gabriel's Angels, Pam leads a 10-person staff that coordinates about 175 human-animal therapy duos and a few hundred additional volunteers. One of Gabriel's Angels' 120 partner agencies is Family Promise of Greater Phoenix, which provides shelter and other services for homeless families. The kids eagerly line up to greet the dogs on their bimonthly visits. "What Pam's doing with Gabriel's Angels is really profound," says Ted Taylor, executive director of the shelter. "It takes children from a place of fear or anxiety to a place of unconditional love."
In Loving Memory
Pam's beloved Gabriel—who would spin in circles with excitement whenever she put on his dog therapy vest—passed away in 2010. She guesses that he met about 10,000 children during his 10 years on the job. "He was the best dog a girl could ever have," she says. Despite the passing of its namesake, Gabriel's Angels thrives, serving 13,700 Arizona youths each year. "Really, it's such an amazing thing to watch the animals heal these kids," Pam says. "They bring out the best in children."
For more information about Gabriel's Angels or to donate, visit gabrielsangels.org.
Photography: Mark Peterman