Orange Park woman, dog comfort victims of the Surfside collapse

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 8/4/21

ORANGE PARK – A local woman and her five-year-old Havanese-Yorkie dog helped comfort the victims of the Surfside condominium collapse and the first responders that responded to the …

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Orange Park woman, dog comfort victims of the Surfside collapse

Posted

ORANGE PARK – A local woman and her five-year-old Havanese-Yorkie dog helped comfort the victims of the Surfside condominium collapse and the first responders that responded to the disaster.

Susan Smalling and her dog, Molly Mae, worked with victims and rescuers who desperately needed both psychologically and physiologically support. Molly Mae doesn’t certainly didn’t mind cuddles, either.

Smalling said this experience was unlike any other for her. It was heartbreaking, but it was also an opportunity for her to share Molly Mae’s love.

“It was wonderful being able to go down and serve as a therapy dog team,” Smalling said. “It’s fulfilling and rewarding and you just can’t imagine the effect a therapy dog has on an individual. A lot of times, people under that kind of stress, especially with Surfside, have a hard time opening up. They bury their feelings, but the mere presence of a dog...Molly Mae in this case...really helps.”

Smalling is a retired Navy nurse and she said as a result, she’s always had a tendency to try and help people when possible. When she got Molly Mae as a puppy five years ago, she attended a symposium in Jacksonville about pet therapy and something clicked for her: “I thought, ‘I should do that.’”

Molly Mae had to have the right temperament for dog therapy and learn basic training skills before getting certified in pet therapy. The duo have visited nursing homes, hospitals, courthouses and airports to provide pet therapy to those in need.

She learned about the Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response program. This program allows pet teams like Smalling and Molly Mae to travel to places all around the country in response to disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, fires and things like the Surfside collapse.

Smalling and Molly Mae went through all the proper steps and certifications to become a part of the Hope program and she’s been doing it for almost four years now. There was a lot for the duo to learn, both about each other. Foremost, it’s important for the two to keep each other calm in stressful conditions, and about the ins and outs of pet therapy.

Smalling is a Southeast Hope co-coordinator alongside Valerie Wolford and their range of states spans from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. She and Molly Mae didn’t just show up to Surfside, though. Her team was called after the Hope organization was invited.

When the Surfside collapse happened, Smalling reached out to the Volunteer Organization Assisting in Disasters and that led to her getting in touch with the American Red Cross, which is a partner of Hope. They said they could use the help of Hope and that’s when Smalling put the call out to Hope members in the region.

She went down to South Florida as a co-coordinator alongside Wolford to help determine where the volunteers would stay, what they’d be doing and more. With that out of the way, Smalling and Molly Mae went to the Surfside Community Center, which temporarily housed first responders and victims who needed a place to go, eat and relax.

“We went from the center to the Surfside Police Department and the Surfside Town Hall, which are located across the street from the center,” Smalling said. “We also went down to the memorial site there to comfort people...and that was pretty much the extent of where we went down there.”

Smalling said that typically there were three to four teams at Surfside at once. She said Molly Mae and other therapy pets there were helpful for getting people to open up and dig up the grief they had buried, something important to start the grieving process.

“Physiologically, there have been studies done where pet therapy dogs bring down blood pressures and that kind of thing,” Smalling said. “It’s very rewarding and I’m so happy I was able to get involved.”

 

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