There are moments Carol Schuster questions why she continues to make the three-hour drive roundtrip just to spend an hour at Maryville Academy each month.
Then she remembers her former foster daughter, Anna, who often spoke of the dog therapy program she participated in during her time at Maryville’s Eisenberg campus, a residential care facility for teens with intellectual and mental health disabilities.
“I will go there (Maryville Academy) and someone there will remind me of her,” Schuster says. “And I know this is where I need to be.”
For the last five years, Schuster, along with her canine companions, Bevin, a 9-year-old German Shepard, and Becca, a 6-year-old lab mix, travels to Maryville and other facilities around the Chicago area to work with special needs children just like Anna.
Schuster and her husband, Jim, were foster care parents for 15 years, taking 24 children into their Northbrook home during that time. Remarkably, they still maintain a relationship with Anna, now 29, and look forward to her daily calls and holiday visits.
“She loved the program and still talks about the dogs, which one was hers, their names—it’s pretty amazing,” Schuster says. “It made a big impact on her, so how could I not do that?”
Yet, Schuster didn’t decide to look into the dog therapy program for herself until years later after adopting a 5-year-old retired seeing-eye dog named Bevin. Bevin seemed bored and unsettled, and it was apparent to Schuster that his drive and enthusiasm to work with people was not over.
“Bevin needed a new job,” Schuster says. “I felt I had this massive obligation to utilize this gift with this extraordinary dog.”
Both dogs are registered to do therapy work through Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in Morton Grove. It is one of the largest and oldest volunteer organizations, serving more than 155 therapeutic programs in the area, and it touches the lives of more than 1,000 children each month.
Many of the girls in the program at Maryville have experienced severe trauma and abuse in the past. According to Rainbow AAT’s website, interacting with therapy dogs can lower blood pressure, slow heart rates and reduce stress hormones triggered in kids who are fearful, grieving or in distress.
For Schuster, the pay-off is in the indelible impact she’s seen for herself on the girls at Maryville. Through playing and training with dogs like Bevin and Becca, the girls often gain a new sense of empowerment and redevelop compassion for others.
“To see them smiling with self-confidence is wonderful,” Schuster says. “I’ve seen too many transformations not to do this important work.”
To determine if your dog may be suitable for volunteer therapy work or for more information on the Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy program, visit their website