Once a week, members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Lowcountry in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island get a special treat. They get to take a break from their other after-school activities to spend an hour of quality time with some furry friends.
During that time, the children take turns reading to dogs, who are brought in by owners who volunteer with the program.
"It's a great program," Paws to Read co-founder Regina Strickroth said. "The dogs love it, and the kids love it, and it's kind of a tie to see who loves it more. I'm really not sure -- it may be the dogs who love it more. But the kids really enjoy it, too."
During the school year, the Paws to Read program visits the Bluffton Boys & Girls Club from 4 to 5 p.m. every Tuesday and visits the Hilton Head club from 4 to 5 p.m. every Friday beginning this week.
In order to participate in the program, dogs must be certified either as a Canine Good Citizen or as a therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International.
Abby Bird of AlphaDog Training Academy and Strickroth, a local lawyer, started the reading program a little more than a year ago. Bird had been involved in Hospice Care of the Lowcountry's Hos-Pets program, taking certified dogs to visit hospice patients and nursing home residents, when she realized the dogs needed more.
"And what I realized is a lot of the dogs, in addition to working with the elderly or separately from working with the elderly, needed another outlet for volunteering, as well as the owners needed another outlet for volunteering," Bird said. "So, the natural affinity would be to go to the other end of the spectrum, which is kids."
So Bird contacted the Bluffton Boys & Girls Club and started organizing the reading program.
Bird said the program is good for children because it gives them an opportunity to practice reading to a non judgmental listener.
"That dog becomes the mechanism for relaxation," Bird said. "It's a noncritical approach so that you're reading to the dog as you're reading to your friends and you're reading to the mentor. And the mentor is helping you, but it's very relaxed. You know, we're not there to criticize you; we're there to help you."
So far, the Paws to Read program has only shared its canine listeners with the two clubs. Strickroth organizes a schedule of volunteers for the Bluffton club, and Bird handles the program on Hilton Head.
Bluffton Boys & Girls Club volunteer coordinator Claryce Allen said on an average Tuesday between 15 and 20 children and three or four dogs participate in the reading program. The children sign up a week ahead of time and on the day of the program they pick out which books they'd like to read.
Seven-year-old Claire Stephens likes to read to a dog named Smoky when Paws to Read comes to the Bluffton club, where she goes for after-school care.
Claire's father, Chris Stephens, said she's always liked reading, but the program has gotten her even more excited about it.
"It gets her reading more," Stephens said. "And the more she reads, the better overall she'll be in school. There's no replacement for reading more."