Faithful Friends – How We Got Started

It’s funny how God can use the most tragic situations in your life to benefit not only yourself, but others as well, if you’ll just let Him. That’s really how Faithful Friends Animal-Assisted Therapy Ministry began.

In 1992, I went through the toughest year I had ever experienced. Do you know the story of Job – how he lost his family, his health, his income, his livelihood, etc.? Not to mention his wonderful friends who were so willing to tell him that he must have done something to deserve all that was happening to him. Well, that’s a little like how our story got started. I had sustained an injury that kept me from participating in the activities that I was used to doing. I had lost a relationship that meant a lot to me at the time. A few months later, I ended up losing my job too. I was in a world of hurt – emotionally most of all, but physically as well and spiritually, I was going through many of the same questions that Job did.

Becoming-a-volunteer-with-Faithful-Friends-Image-600In order to fill something inside of me, I tried to become active in many other activities – mostly ministries helping others. I helped a friend of mine start a street ministry to the homeless in downtown Houston. While I knew we were making a difference every time we took food and clothes to them, it just wasn’t really giving me that fulfillment that I was desperately seeking. I realized that this was a ministry that my friend was called to do, but it wasn’t the one God had called me to do. I knew I liked working with kids and had coached youth sports before my injury, so I tried teaching Bible study at the church. But, this still wasn’t my calling, and it didn’t give me that feeling of fulfillment either. Most of the kids in the church weren’t the ones that were hurting the most. The kids I worked with in sports, and a very special little boy that I had helped before, were hurting inside. Those were the kids I needed to help.

University Baptist Church began offering classes called UBC 101, 201, 301 and 401. At the time, I was signed up for every Bible study class I could get my hands on. I was literally in a class six days a week. I was searching for something to take the pain away – someone to give me an answer. I knew that I was only going to find it through the church or a Bible study.

The UBC 101, 201, 301 and 401 classes taught about the beliefs of the church. The importance and responsibility of church membership, how to find your spiritual gifts and then how to apply them. Through these classes, we were given evaluations to determine where our spiritual gifts were. At that time, I wasn’t even sure that I had any because pain and depression were the biggest things in my life then. But, when I filled out the survey, I realized what gifts God had given me through the experiences He had led me through.

First “gift”

I realized that I do like working with kids. I love coaching, and someday I hope to go back to it. But, the kids I most enjoy working with are the ones who are hurting inside. I understood that kind of pain because I had been through it myself. The pain of rejection, of physical abuse, etc. were pains that I had experienced myself. I knew what it felt like, and I could see it in some of the kids I had worked with before. I had a special bond with the kids that had been through similar experiences. It gave me an incredible feeling of fulfillment when they realized that I had cared about them enough to see their pain. But, I had no idea how to turn this into a ministry that I could do on a long-term basis.

Second “gift”

I realized that I also had a good rapport with seniors. My grandmother raised me, and I had been around seniors all of my life. When she passed away on my birthday in 1987, I had stopped being around senior citizens. She was the one person in my life that had really made me feel that I was loved and cared about. When she left, I felt very much alone, and being around seniors was something that was difficult for me to do then.

My third “gift”

It was a love for animals. I especially loved dogs, but any animal was special to me. During this time of being in all these Bible studies and signing up for different ministries, I was getting home at night really late. There, waiting for me to open the door, were two wagging tails. They were so excited to see me. They just wanted me to play with them. I feel guilty now realizing how much they were willing to love me through this tough time in my life – and I was too busy trying to be busy that I couldn’t really appreciate their love for me then.

When I met with one of the pastors at University Baptist Church to review the spiritual gifts questionnaire, he asked me where my gifts “fit” in the ministries already going on at the church. I told him that I had tried teaching the kids at church, but that it really wasn’t where I felt I needed to be. I needed to be with kids who really needed a friend. He talked about the ministry to the seniors. Our church did not have a ministry that went to nursing homes at that time, and he thought that was an area that would work for me. I still was not sure I could do it because I knew it would make me miss my grandmother a lot. Of course, there was no such church ministry to animals, so that didn’t seem like an option.

As I sat in his office and thought about the three areas that were high on my list of interests, I remembered hearing about animal-assisted therapy when I was going to dog shows with my Siberian Husky. I told him about it. I really didn’t know very much about animal-assisted therapy, and had no clue as to how I could get started in that type of ministry. But, it sounded interesting. He gave me the “green light” to go out and find out about it. He told me that they didn’t teach working with animals in seminary.

I contacted some of the people I had met at dog shows, and found out about some animal-assisted therapy groups that were already in the Houston area. I contacted both groups to find out more information. One of the groups was associated with Second Baptist Church in Houston. So, I went to their workshop to see how they had mixed a church ministry with animals. I talked with the leaders of Paws for Caring. I told them what I was trying to do at University Baptist Church. They were willing to let us start up a “franchise”, and we called ourselves Paws for Caring – South.

This new group consisted of two people and two dogs. We started visiting a nursing home in League City called Harbourview Care Center. When I went inside, I realized that the dogs were something special to the residents. Many of them had to give up their pets when they went into the nursing home. All of a sudden, I realized that this wasn’t going to be as hard as I had first thought. My dog, Reveille, a Collie/Shepherd), and a Sheltie named Sherlock were such a big hit with the residents that it wasn’t hard to get conversations going. As we kept going back to visit them again and again, we began developing relationships with them. I realized that instead of making me miss my grandmother more, I felt like I was doing something that would make her happy.

Faithful Friends Reveille and Beryl

At first, I only took my Collie/Shepherd mix, Reveille. He was very dependable and very obedient. I didn’t feel like I had to worry about him. As our group grew, some people joined the ministry that did not have a pet of their own. So, my good, dependable dog went with one of them – Beryl Booker. Beryl has been visiting with Reveille ever since. So, here came the challenge for me – time for me to get my Siberian Husky involved. Talk about a major prayer time for me! My Husky, Tamu, is full of energy. He loves to run, pull, and carry on. Obedience is just not his specialty. I was not sure how he would respond in a nursing home environment. That’s when God taught me how much he communicates through animals. As soon as we entered the door of the nursing home, Tamu would settle down. He seemed to sense how fragile the people he was visiting were. He would sit beside their wheelchairs or their bed and give them lots of “kisses”. I would scratch his chest, something he really liked, and we were able to sit quite awhile, which is very unusual for him.

Word spread about our little group, and we quickly began to grow. We were already making two visits a month to Harbourview, and started visiting other nursing homes. Eventually, we were invited to begin visits at a hospital which specialized in treatment to teenagers who had been in bad situations. There it was – I was now getting to work with all three groups – kids, seniors and animals. Visiting the teenagers at this facility was something special for me and for the dogs. The kids love throwing the balls and playing with the dogs. The dogs got the exercise that I couldn’t give them with my injury.

Faithful Friends Shari and BearAbout a year after I started the ministry, I found a little black Chow that had been tied up with a clothes wire around his neck and used for target practice. He was running around the neighborhood with the clothes wire still tied tightly around his neck. His fear of humans was so great that he would not come anywhere near a human. He would come up to my dogs when they were out for a walk, but no matter how hard I tried, he wouldn’t come near me. After a couple of weeks of trying, he followed Reveille onto my back porch while a lot of construction was going on at my townhouse. We trapped him in the courtyard. It still took us over an hour to be able to get him close enough for us to remove the clothes wire. I took him to the vet, and the vet told me he wasn’t sure he could save this little dog. I tried calling rescue groups, but they just wanted to put him down because they didn’t think he would ever be friendly with humans again. I couldn’t do that. An animal that had been abused was just as special to me as a child that had been abused. Both lost trust in humans and both needed someone to show that they cared. After a couple of months at the vet’s office, I brought the Chow home and named him Bear, since he looked like a little black bear cub.

It took about a year for me to “socialize” Bear with humans again. I took him to parks and playgrounds where I could let him be touched by other people. Slowly but surely, his trust grew. Eventually, I took him with me to the hospital where the teenagers were. The very first visit, Bear went immediately to a corner in the room and sat down. He just wasn’t into playing with the balls and frisbees like the other dogs. As I sat there with Bear in the corner, one of the boys came over and sat with us. I began telling the boy about Bear’s story. He stroked Bear’s hair and Bear lay down right next to him. Before the hour was over, the boy was hugging Bear and telling Bear that he loved him. When the visit was over, one of the therapists came up and told me that this boy had also been in an abusive situation. They had not been able to get through to him with any of the therapy that they had tried. As the weeks went on, Bear became his favorite activity. The therapists were able to use Bear, and Bear’s abuse, to be able to talk to the boy about his own situation. Many tears flowed – from the boy, from me and from the therapists. Just like my situation, Bear had been brought through his own trials so that he could minister to someone who was in pain too. I nicknamed him “God’s little miracle”.

As our group grew, it became a logistical problem to continue going into Houston for meetings, etc. So, in September of 1996, University Baptist Church became the proud parent of Faithful Friends Animal-Assisted Therapy Ministry. Membership has grown to over 100 human volunteers and even more pet volunteers. We have dogs, cats, rabbits, and turtles that have made visits with us. We are currently making more than 20 visits a month to various nursing homes, hospitals and long-term care facilities. Faithful Friends has been invited to health and community fairs, parades, speaking engagements and many churches to talk about how well the animals are accepted and appreciated by those we visit. We are excited to tell people about our “miracle” stories – Alzheimer patients who remember their pets from their childhood; stroke victims who are able to use arms and legs to stroke or walk a pet; coma patients that have responded to the touch of the fur of a pet; and all the many relationships that have been established through this ministry. Since membership at University Baptist Church is not required to be a Faithful Friend volunteer, we have also become a ministry within our own group. We have been able to help each other through the loss of pets, illness or loss of family members, etc.

When Faithful Friends was started, it was meant to be a way for me to funnel my attention and energy for those who were hurting so that I did not dwell on my own pain. Now, it has become a ministry far beyond anything I expected. It amazes me every time I think about how God used the trials in my own life to prepare me and give me the desire to help those who were also going through major trials in their own life. And, I guess He will never cease to amaze me on how well He directs the animals to the people who need it most on each and every visit.

Shari Ferguson