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Centre County PAWS Reading Program Is a ‘Win-Win’ for Youngsters and Their Feline Shelter Friends

by on January 15, 2020 5:30 AM

It’s Tuesday night and in the Centre County PAWS lobby, a volunteer is giving 7-year old Sophia Rearick a quick lesson on cat body language.

“Do you know what it means when a cat’s ears look like this?” the volunteer says, hands cupped overhead in a rough approximation of forward-facing cat ears. Wide-eyed, with pink ribbons in her hair, Sophia shyly shakes her head no.

“This means the cat is happy. If they go like this,” the volunteer says, laying her hands flat to the side of her head, “it means it’s not happy and wants to be left alone.” 

It’s a lesson she’ll repeat several times as other youngsters begin arriving for the night’s activity – the PAWS Reading Program.

The free program, held 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. the first and third Tuesday each month, is geared to early readers. Participants bring their favorite reading material with them, then choose a room in the cat wing where they settle in and read aloud to the room’s residents. 

“It’s great for the children,” says Kim Sharp, a longtime volunteer. “Having a nonjudgmental reading environment really helps them in terms of confidence.”

For PAWS, she says, having visitors spend time with the cats is beneficial as well.

“Shelter life can be stressful,” Sharp says. “Young cats and kittens crave human interaction, so it’s a win-win situation.”

The reading-to-cats program, which began four years ago, was started as a Girl Scout Gold Award project for then-high school student Gwen Oliver.

(Photo by Heather Weikel) A cat gets comfortable with Audrey Fulton, 7, of Houserville, as she reads "I Am Rosa Parks."

“The idea of the Gold Award project is to develop a community development project that’s sustained after you’re done with it,” Oliver says. “It’s definitely been ongoing.” 

Oliver credits Sharp, who she knew through scouting, with the genesis of the idea. 

“She said she heard of research that said it was a non-threatening environment to develop reading skills, especially for non-confident readers,” Oliver says. “It also socializes the cats and makes them more adoptable.”

The program originated as a partnership with Park Forest Elementary School, as a field trip for the young students.

“The teachers were really positive about it overall, and the kids really like it,” Oliver says. “On the feedback forms, some kids would draw the cats.”

It developed into the evening program out of necessity, Sharp says. 

“Schools and teachers loved it, but it came down to logistics. With busing and permission slips and clearances, it just became too complicated,” she says.

Evening events, Sharp adds, are better all around.

“The smaller environment is better for the cats,” she says. 

In cat room No. 2, Sophia opens her book What’s That, Mittens? about a curious kitten, and starts to read. As she reads, she pauses, showing the cats the pictures. 

Sophia’s mom, Jessica, read about the program on the website and liked the idea.

“Just the fact that she can get experience reading,” she says, “and she really likes being with cats.”

“That one kind of looks like Mittens,” Sophia tells her mom, pointing at a tabby cat lounging lazily on the floor close by. She’s at least as interested in how the cats react to her as she is in reading her book.

“That one is sleeping,” Sophia says, pointing to one curled up on a high perch, “but that one’s listening. I think that one likes me the best.”

The program, Sharp says, has been a good way for younger children to spend time at PAWS. 

“Kids want to come out,” she says. “They have an interest in pet rescue, or veterinary science, but the youngest [that] they can volunteer is 13. So it’s one way to get the kids out to PAWS.”

The success of the program has led to the creation of other programs designed to offer the younger set a chance to spend time with the animals. PAWSOME Kids Club, for ages 6 through 12, meets eight Saturday mornings a year from 10 a.m. to noon and offers a chance to learn about responsible pet ownership and care through arts and crafts, games, guest speakers, and discussions with volunteers. Children get a glimpse behind the scenes at the organization, helping care for the animals and their living areas.

PAWS Summer Camp, for children 6 through 14, is a one-week camp in which kids spend at least two hours a day with the animals in addition to activities such as making pet toys, touring the surgical and medical facility, listening to a dog’s heart and lungs, and learning basic animal training.

Meanwhile, in another room, a fat cat has taken up residence on Audrey Fulton’s lap, making it hard to read. She’s trying to read I Am Rosa Parks, but the size of the cat, whose name they can’t determine, makes it hard. Eventually, she puts the book down to focus on petting the cat.

Audrey, 7, whose first experience with the program was a field trip in kindergarten, thinks the cats like having the readers visit.

“I think maybe they do because they get some company,” she said.

Audrey’s mom, Laura, thinks there’s more to Audrey’s visits than keeping the kitties company.

“I think she’s angling to get a cat,” Laura says.

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Robin Crawford is a freelance writer in State College.


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