GILBERT, AZ — Tight budgets and dwindling resources are forcing school districts across the state to get creative when it comes to caring for the emotional well-being of their students. Now one East Valley campus is welcoming some new faces to help make an impact.
Nine-year-old Scooter Pie may be the most popular guy on the Weinberg Elementary School campus in Gilbert, and all of the attention he receives comes with a very specific purpose.
"Make school a happy place, a safe place, a place to have fun," said Barb Farmer, "to encourage them to read, to be kind to each other."
Farmer is Scooter Pie's handler and president of D.I.G.S., or "Dogs in Grade Schools." Starting this year the all-volunteer group will bring one of four certified therapy dogs to Weinberg every day of the week, hoping to ease some of the overwhelming challenges facing even the youngest of today's students.
"We have had some students talk about hurting themselves and committing suicide," said Weinberg Elementary School Principal Shirley Mathews. "They're so young at the elementary level and it's heartbreaking for us and how do we deal with that?"
"We know that the money is short so how can we supplant that with volunteer power?" said Farmer. "Volunteer power can go far."
Fun is not the only point of the program. Administrators plan to collect data so they can actually measure its success.
"We want to look at our attendance and see if our dogs are one more motivator for kids to be in school," said Mathews.
They will also be tracking discipline while teaching empathy.
So whether it's being a listening ear or including those who feel like they don't belong, Scooter Pie is already helping kids unleash their potential.
"We love them just like the staff does and we care about them, and the dogs care about them," said Farmer.