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Rick Kaplan and his team of Canine Angels service dogs couldn’t stay away.
One week after the Dec. 14 shootings by a lone gunman who killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Kaplan and his Carolina service dogs traveled more than 700 miles north to see what they could do to help.
Kaplan was accompanied by his current team of nine certified service and therapy dogs—Zoe, Bobo, King, Leroy, Ryder, Abbi, Diva, Freddie and Junior.
They’re among Kaplan’s pack of Canine Angels who are regularly seen at events in Brunswick County, where several of the specially trained rescue dogs have also been placed to aid disabled veterans free of charge.
The Angels left home base in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., arriving after a 13-hour drive in the devastated Connecticut town on Dec. 21. They stayed until Christmas Eve.
“We went to represent the people of the Carolinas, to share their pain as all Americans felt it across the country,” said Kaplan, a New York City transplant. “We knew that the comfort of grieving with the dogs, even though temporary, would have a major therapeutic effect.”
They were met by an entourage quickly organized in advance by Jan Igoe, communications manager for Canine Angels.
“They knew the places and events where we could be the most useful to the largest number of people,” Kaplan said.
With open arms, “perfect strangers” Kaki and Fred Taylor, the Angels’ impromptu hosts, provided overnight lodging for Kaplan and the dogs at their Newtown home during the visit. The Taylors are now “perfect friends” of Canine Angels, Kaplan said.
In those three-plus days, Kaplan estimates more than 10,000 pairs of hands came into contact with the Angels.
“We met parents, students, teachers, classmates, grandmothers of the victims, and the public in general,” Kaplan said. “We met police officers, EMS workers, firemen and many other volunteers.”
Just like Angels
During their visit, the Canine Angels lived up to their name.
“They were perfectly behaved, kind, patient and loving for three days, nonstop, enduring crowds, tumult, tears, pain and laughter, thousands of hands going in every direction, tails being pulled, ears twisted and eyes poked,” Kaplan relayed, adding Canine Angels supporters in the Carolinas can be proud of the dogs who went north to represent them.
The team was “thanked profusely by everyone,” he said. “They were so appreciative of the commiseration and the effort to come such a long way.”
They never delved into anyone’s privacy, he said, but several times information was offered.
“On three occasions, the mothers of victims sat and held a dog for hours, each saying they almost felt guilty for enjoying it so much and not thinking of their slain children during that time,” Kaplan said.
He added there is “not a scintilla of a doubt that each and every dog felt the intensity of the grief, sadness and neediness of the townspeople, and each rose to the occasion magnificently with patience and gentleness.”
There is other evidence of “all that is good in the human spirit” at work in Newtown, Kaplan said.
Truckloads of goods are arriving there daily from throughout the country and world, he said.
Donations supporting the grieving families have been nonstop. In addition, citizens within dozens of miles have been using their time and efforts “to do whatever is asked of them by the organizers,” he relayed.
Police and firefighters have been working voluntary 16-hour days to help control and protect the town.
The entire town, Kaplan said, has been a sight to behold and was humbling and life-altering.
Hopes to return
Kaplan’s impression is the people of Newtown “were all numb with grief, and that the reality has not yet set in.”
In a few more weeks, after all the tumult subsides, he believes it will hit them harder.
“We offered them a return visit, and they are looking forward to it,” Kaplan said. He hopes to return to Newtown with the Angels in a month or two.
“We will go back whenever we are invited,” he said. “I know I speak for us all in praying for timely recovery for every citizen of Newtown.”
Laura Lewis is a staff writer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email email@example.com.