Children attending summer camp at Penn Center on St. Helena Island are digging a program that involves an unlikely combination -- reading and dogs.
Every Wednesday afternoon, about a dozen kids take turns reading to therapy dogs who are certified with the nonprofit volunteer organization Therapy Dogs International. Dogs of all breeds and sizes take part in the program.
Camp coordinator Velda Marshall said the children -- ranging from age 6 to about 13 -- look forward to Tail Waggin' Tutors every week. The program, which ends Wednesday when camp concludes, is intended to help children improve their reading skills.
"The children love the program," Marshall said. "It's just such a calming and relaxing environment. It's truly a therapy for both the animal and the child."
The dogs' owners are members of the Beaufort chapter of Therapy Dogs International, which was started about a year and a half ago. Founding member Rebecca Bass said the reading program does more than just help children improve their reading. It increases their confidence in public speaking and teaches them how to interact with well-trained dogs. She said her group also offers the program after school at the Wardle Family YMCA in Port Royal.
Some members of the Beaufort group take their dogs to Penn Center, and others visit Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Beaufort Elementary School and assisted-living facilities in the area.
Beaufort chapter director Dick Hoagland said the group has about 25 handlers and numerous dogs. A Bluffton chapter was started in the spring and now has 16 active members.
"(The dogs) bring comfort and joy to the people that they visit," Bass said. "And the way they (do that) is that dogs offer unconditional love and affection."