“It happened several times,” said Kaye Gaither. “My husband Michael, Honey and I would be in a public place and a small child would see us and smile. Then their parents would see us and become nervous and direct their children to stay away from us.”

The reason for the parent’s anxiety is Honey Rosalie Cleopatra Alkara, a black and tan German Shepherd. Honey is Michael Gaither’s Certified Full Mobility, P.T.S.D. Medical Service Dog. The two were paired through a United States Department of Veteran Affairs research program that matches medical service dogs with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Theses reactions by the public would upset Michael because Honey is such a big part of his life. She is with him all day, every day and goes everywhere with him. Michael and Kaye talked about it and decided they had to do something to try to change that perception.

The couple started Kids for K9s, an all-volunteer coalition in 2013. The goal of the Kids for K9s organization is to create awareness among school children in the Tri-Counties about the work that service dogs and their owners do in the community and an understanding of how to interact with these animals when they see them in public.

“We thought the program would be a lot more effective if we brought a dog for our presentations that the children could pet. Actually seeing and petting the dog leaves more of an impression,” said Kaye. “So we reached out to Haven Hospice Volunteer Coordinator Vondla Sullivan and she said she had the perfect dog.”

Vondla recommended the Gaithers contact Donna Bushnell about her dog Sola, a pet therapy dog and Haven Hospice Pet Visit Volunteer in the Tri-Counties. Sola was trained as a guide dog. However, due to her hip dysplasia she was never assigned to a blind person and was returned to her trainers, the Bushnells.

Now, Sola gives back to the community by visiting Haven Hospice patients in the Tri-Counties. “Sola and I have been volunteering with Haven Hospice for five years,” said Donna who spent 34 years working in education before retiring in 2004. “Vondla asked if I would be interested in participating in this program and I thought it was a perfect fit because of my background in education. I thought it was important to share information about service dogs with children and they really enjoy the presentation.”

The Kids for K9s program has visited every elementary school in Levy and Gilchrist Counties, and there are plans to revisit those schools in the fall. The program targets third grade students but has also been presented to kindergarten through fifth grade students. “The children are wonderful little sponges. They ask great questions about the dogs and are always excited to learn more,” said Donna. “The whole experience has been very rewarding for Sola and me.”

Haven helps the Kids for K9s program in other ways as well. “Haven provides us with the folders we use for our program as well as our black and white printing. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without Haven’s help,” said Kaye. “We enjoy working with Haven so much that we are currently in the process of becoming official Haven volunteers.”

Volunteers are a vital member of the Haven Care Team. They provide companionship, support and assistance to patients residing at home, in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, hospitals and the Tri-County Care Center. They also reach out to grieving families, help staff the Attic Resale Store, assist with administrative tasks and serve on special event committees. Haven is proud to have more than 700 community members dedicating their time and talents to patients and families in 18-counties across North Florida. If you are interested in volunteering in the Tri-County area, please contact Haven Hospice Volunteer Coordinator Vondla Sullivan 352.493.2333.