East Dundee church hopes to receive comfort dog soon
When the Immanuel Lutheran Church's congregation receives its comfort dog this year, it will have little time to nap.
The golden retriever will be kept busy consoling victims of tragedies, visiting nursing home residents, greeting school students and being read to at the local library.
"The dog will be put to work right away," said Barbara Christie, a member of the East Dundee church coordinating the dog's handlers. "We've met with West Dundee firefighters and area senior citizens to lay the groundwork and tell them the dog will be available."
Neither Christie nor anyone at the church knows when the golden retriever will arrive from Lutheran Church Charities; however, one is being trained now.
Meanwhile, she and her colleagues will interview potential handlers who will introduce it to the public.
"We've received a good response from people who want to handle the dog. They will be interviewed by Lutheran Church Charities to determine if they are the right fit for the program," she said.
A pool of handlers is needed to ensure the dog is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Immanuel Lutheran Church members started looking for a comfort dog last year. They were told the wait to receive one may be long because the demand for dogs has grown.
Media photos of grieving people hugging the gentle golden retrievers have ignited a burning desire from church and civic groups to obtain their own dogs.
"The program has mushroomed," said Cliff Berutti, a handler who works with St. John's Lutheran Church's comfort dog, "Butter." "It started out with six dogs has grown to 100 in 20 states."
The Algonquin church was among the first Illinois congregations to receive a dog more than eight years ago. Then, it took longer for community members to become accustomed to it. Like Christie, St. John's congregation members reached out to first-responders and other groups that may want to meet and use the dog.
Now, Butter is as much a part of the community as the Algonquin bypass.
"Our dog is very busy," said Helga Berutti, Cliff's wife and another handler for Butter. "(In December), it and five other dogs were at a funeral for a Marengo teacher who died in a car accident."
Butter's role at the funeral was to console Zion Lutheran School teacher Katie Kloess' students. Kloess, a Marengo resident and basketball coach, was killed Dec. 15 in a multivehicle car crash.
Other dogs have helped Joplin, Missouri, and Newtown, Connecticut, residents cope with the deaths of neighbors, friends and students in multiple shootings. Some dogs have helped people pick up the pieces of their lives after their homes were destroyed by fire and tornadoes.
Hopefully, major disasters won't fill up the new dog's schedule, so it will spend most of its days in schools, libraries, nursing homes and veterans' centers outside of the media spotlight.
Immanuel Lutheran's desire for its own dog is not a hop on the comfort dog bandwagon, said the Rev. Phillip Baerwolf, a pastor at the East Dundee church. There are plenty of dogs owned regionally that would be available locally.
The desire for it is to extend the church's ministry in its congregation, school and most importantly, community.
The dogs have been known to reach out to people, many of them students, who cannot tell other humans why they are personally upset or emotionally hurt.
"For now, we are in a waiting period," Baerwolf said. "This is a good thing because we have time to prepare for it and let people know it will be available when it arrives."