Collars & Scholars, HSSC’s newest humane education program, is a nine-week course that emphasizes the concepts of self-awareness, empathy, and compassion—for other people and for animals. This program is a joint venture of HSSC and The Florida Center for Early Childhood, brought together by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.
The pilot program, which ran February–May 2019, took place at Gocio Elementary School and consisted of a small group of fourth and fifth graders. All the participants were selected by the school-based mental health therapist. The program uses the principles of the human-animal bond to boost students’ social and emotional health.
Collars & Scholars lessons, which are led by knowledgeable HSSC staff, are a mix of group discussion, worksheets, activities, journaling, puppets, games, and ample time to interact with the animal visitors—typically three or four of HSSC’s Pet Therapy teams plus shelter animals. We drew on landmark programs like Mutt-i-grees® (a collaboration of North Shore Animal League America and Yale University’s School of the 21st Century) to develop the curriculum. The goal is to create a safe, welcoming space for children to learn about animals and themselves. Students who began the pilot program as shy and disengaged were, by week nine, eagerly participating, sharing their thoughts, showing respect for others, and actively engaging with the animals and presenters.
“Humane education teaches students how to treat animals with compassion and respect and love. They take these lessons, and they can practice them every day throughout their lives.”—Christen Benson, HSSC Executive Director
HSSC is not new to humane education, having spent years visiting local schools, libraries, and community centers and presenting on everything from empathy to safe animal handling. Thousands of children have attended our Fur Fun Camps, and our certified Pet Therapy teams have helped students improve their reading skills simply by acting as a supportive audience while the children read aloud to the therapy dogs. And our experience bringing Pet Therapy to senior citizens, hospice patients, people in rehab programs, and others experiencing tough times, has demonstrated the profound affect animals can have, something emerging research confirms.
Humane education efforts are part of HSSC’s long-term vision to build a community where all animals are cared for and loved. By sowing seeds of compassion and respect for animals now, we hope to reap a more humane future. The Community Foundation of Sarasota County believes this program and the collaboration between HSSC and The Florida Center is a way to address the underlying causes of some of society’s most complex problems. Sensitivity to children’s emotional development, coupled with innovative experiences like Collars & Scholars, can position at-risk children for success and lead to fewer instances of animal cruelty and neglect.
“We know these social and emotional skills are necessary for going on to be successful not only academically, but in life. With these kids being our future, that is ultimately what the success of this program is. What animals bring to our lives is so special, and by bringing together unlikely suspects, like HSSC and The Florida Center, you sometimes get greater results.”
—Roxie Jerde, President & CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County
Having seen the remarkable results of the pilot program, we hope to bring Collars & Scholars to other schools in Sarasota County and we're excited to see how the program will grow. The Collars & Scholars Program is adaptable for children ages 3 and up. Those interested in Collars & Scholars are invited to contact Christen Benson at 941.955.4131 x102.
The Collars & Scholars Program is led by HSSC staff, in partnership with school-based counselors from The Florida Center for Early Childhood. It's made possible by a grant from the Robert Parker Fund at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.