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Furry friends build trust


Not afraid to share their love, Bear the Australian Shepherd, Cha Chi the Chihuahua and Charm the mouse are playing a big part in supporting the wellbeing of school students who have become disconnected from their education.

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Add into the mix several rescue joeys, emu chicks, ducklings, chickens, goats, guinea pigs, a red tail cockatoo, kookaburra and bearded dragon and you have the perfect platform for building trust and making a difference to the lives of children with behavioural issues and special needs.

Established about five years ago, Centacare Catholic Family Services’ animal wellbeing program is run by Liz Sparks who cares for the menagerie of critters at her property in the Adelaide Hills.

Each week Liz, accompanied by a selection of animals, visits several schools and runs a parenting program in Adelaide.

The students she interacts with often have complex needs which have resulted in them being excluded from mainstream school. For some, their family circumstances have never allowed for the child to love or care for an animal.

“The program definitely works,” Liz told The Southern Cross as she prepared for the start of 2022 school visits.

“It’s not a petting school and the program is linked to learning, but very much it is also about wellbeing.

“Charm the mouse is a hit with many kids. To see these students as they hold this little mouse, they are so gentle. They have something that will look after them, love them and is not frightened of them. It’s awesome, it’s brilliant.”

Then there is the energetic Bear, who loves to run outside with children in the playground.

“Certain kids gravitate to certain animals and vice versa. Animals tend to pick people too and Bear has a few favourites – he is definitely a boy’s dog,” she laughed.

The wellbeing initiative first took shape when Liz was working in the Flexible Learning Options (FLO) program for students identified as being at high risk of leaving school early. At the time she was looking after a rescue joey and with the permission of her manager began to take it on visits to a student who had “incredibly complex needs”.

He loved being with the joey and soon she was also bringing along one of her pet goats, and the program evolved with more animals joining the sessions.

“Just to see the change in this lad … to see him happy and like a child,” she said.

“I think it’s successful because of the trust that is shown. The kids know how much I love the animals and the fact that I trust them to hold them…in their lives people don’t trust them.”

The Centacare program is not only supporting the students but also their families, particularly those who are new arrivals.

“Animals are a massive part of our culture in Australia – we have lots of cats and dogs as pets – but that is not that case for everyone. We’ve been teaching the students and their families not to be terrified of them,” she explained.

“If they have come from a war-torn country they are not going to have had a pet because it costs money – or they may be frightened because animals can carry disease such as rabies.”

On the flip side, Liz said some Afghan students made sure their parents attended the sessions so they could see the goats.

“Because they haven’t seen goats since they came to Australia and for them, it’s a touch of home.”

The program’s bearded dragon.

Liz’s love of animals has been a mainstay in her life and was nurtured from a young age. Her mother was always taking in rescue animals and her stepfather was a ranger at Cleland National Park.

“So we used to go there all the time and hang out with all the animals after Cleland closed each day,” she said.

Today her Mum still looks after the occasional rescue animal and her sister is involved in supplying animals for movie sets.

Last year when she faced a major health battle, Liz said having the unconditional love of her animals kept her spirits buoyed. She also admitted that she may have snuck in a few of her furry friends to put a smile on the faces of fellow patients!


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