Furry, four-legged friends can do so much more than just cuddle up on the couch with you. They can actually change your life. This is the case for children in Lake and West Orange counties who gain literary confidence through a nonprofit that encourages them to read to dogs.
Six years ago, Thom Battisto was at an event with Sydney, an Australian shepherd and chow mix, when someone mentioned that she would make a perfect therapy dog. After seeing how confidently his niece read out loud to Sydney one evening, Battisto took the advice to heart and founded a nonprofit called Read to Sydney to help children read one tail at a time.
“That’s when we started researching therapy dogs helping children who are learning to read,” says Battisto. After Sydney’s certification through Alliance, the two visited schools and libraries at no charge; everywhere they went children were comfortable reading out loud without the fear of being corrected or teased over their reading ability.
One dog wasn’t enough since the program was suddenly in such high demand. News spread throughout Lake County – Sydney was one of the few therapy dogs that worked with children with learning disabilities. Read to Sydney now has three therapy dogs: Toby, Flash and Bailey. Toby (Beagle/Hound mix) is Alliance accredited while Flash (Longhaired Doxin) and Bailey (Black Labrador) are in basic training to become accredited early this year.
Sydney’s Reading Center opened two years ago at West Oaks Mall, creating a “hub” for children to visit the dogs. Children can choose any book to read and then keep. Books were bought with monetary donations, but the organization accepts book donations. There is no charge for any of Read to Sydney’s services at any location.
Acknowledging the importance of Read to Sydney, Elijah Kelly collected books for the non-profit for his Eagle Scout project. Elijah has collected hundreds of books through his book drive, along with bean bag chairs to prevent children from sitting on the floor while reading.
Elijah heard about Read to Sydney from his mother, who was given the idea from a friend to complete services hours for his Boy Scout Troop. Elijah decided to turn the entire endeavor into his Eagle Scout project, from building special tables for wheelchair accessibility in the reading center, to getting computer systems donated through an acquaintance that admires the Read to Sydney’s work.
“Read to Sydney means to me that everybody is important and everybody has the same chance of success, even kids with special needs,” says Elijah. “Toby the therapy dog does not judge when you can’t read well like me, which gives kids the confidence to be able to read out loud.”